Chough flying at sunset. The Lizard 2002. Pic Ray Hales.
We have long admired the Red-billed Chough’s intelligence and beauty – how could we not be inspired to help this magnificent bird and see it flying again over coastlines where it had disappeared?
Mike Reynolds and Robin Hanbury Tenison August 4th 1987
The official launch was back in 1987 – not a good time for chough-lovers as the species had died out in Cornwall. But things were about to change…
The natural recolonisation by three birds in 2001 gave us great opportunities to observe the behaviour of wild birds right on our doorstep.
A breeding pair of wild Choughs on the Cornish coast 2016. Pic Ray Hales.
In the 1980s we had had some success in breeding choughs here at Paradise Park, but it was just one or two chicks a year, as we learned what they needed. Now we have become somewhat expert and our captive pairs produce around ten chicks each year.
Chough chick aged 24 days being weighed. Ray Hales 2014.
This has enabled us to fulfil our objective on Jersey and with the help of our hard-working partners at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, thirty – yes THIRTY – choughs are now living free on the island after an absence of 100 years. The method used for the Jersey release is a template for further re-establishment to help join up the scattered populations and spread genetic diversity.
Here is a short clip of two hand-reared chough chicks being fed. The chicks continued to feed like this for almost two minutes, and will do so every two hours for the next four weeks, when they will fledge.
The two chicks were taken from nest 2, after it became apparent they were falling behind their older siblings. The smaller birds were simply being swamped by their older brothers or sisters, and were not putting on any weight.
If we had left these two, they would almost certainly have perished. It’s a small but tough world in a chough nest box.
We had a couple of worrying days, but then the chicks began to recover and put on weight. They have now grown from 22 and 15 grams, to 187 and 181 grams, and will soon be annoying us with incessant calls for food.
Here is a short video showing how Mrs Chough keeps the nest tidy.
It’s one of those questions people always like to ask, like “How do astronauts go to the toilet?” or “Why aren’t bird’s nests full of poo?”
In the case of a chough chick, it’s simply a matter of hanging your behind over the edge of the nest and letting go! Mum (or dad) then come along and take the poop away.
Quite often the adult female will stimulate the chick, by gently prodding the chicks rear end. The chick then produces a faecal sac, which the adult bird then disposes of away from the nest.
This serves two useful purposes – firstly it keeps the nest clean and free from a build-up of toxic waste, and secondly it keeps the location of the nest a secret. Some predators will home in on the build up of waste around a nest.
Our breeding choughs have now produced ten tiny (and not-so-tiny) chicks, with possibly more to come!
Four week-old chough chicks in the nest
All of the eggs in nests 1- 3 have now hatched (no eggs in nest 4). There were two infertile eggs in nest 1, which is unusual for this pair, as they have been very productive in the past.
Nests 2 and 3 have four chicks each. The chicks in nest 3 are now seven and eight days old. The nest 2 chicks are between two and four days.
Nest 5 still has five eggs, which are due to hatch this weekend.
The picture above is taken from the access door, which is used to monitor the young birds. At the top of the image is Alison Hales who goes in to the aviary to distract the adult birds, and to add to the large quantities of live food in the aviary.
The birds have learned that Ali brings lots of bugs (mini-mealworms, crickets and ant eggs), so it is a positive experience for them.
How do you use a smartphone to help feed a chough chick?
Simple. We record the sound an adult bird makes when they call to the chicks. The chicks use this signal before their eyes are open. When the parent calls, the chicks beg for food – if hungry.
When we need to do any supplementary feeding (in this case, a smaller chick), we simply play back the call, and the chick begs for food.
We are giving the smaller two chicks in nest 3 some supplementary feeds for the next few days, just to help get their weights up to a similar level to the older chicks. As you can see, the older chicks are not particularly hungry.
The rattling and clanking, and whistles in the background come from Ali. She is in the front of the aviary keeping the adult birds distracted.
Here is the first picture of the first nest of this year’s chough chicks. (Nest three).
Three chough chicks just over 24 hours old
We have designed the nest boxes in the breeding aviaries with a small inspection hatch at the back. This allows us to monitor weights, give supplementary feeds, and occasionally medication.
While the birds are distracted by someone, usually Ali, going into the front of the aviary with food, I can use the opportunity to open the hatch to carry out my secret duties. The adult birds tend to hide in a small space on top of the nest box while this is going on.
We get the birds used to these intrusions before any eggs are hatched, by using positive reinforcement. The adult birds associate a person coming into the aviary as a good thing. Person equals food. This makes our disturbances much less stressful for all concerned, except for Ray and Ali.
The total egg count for our breeding choughs is now up to seventeen.
A rare view of seventeen chough eggs
To mark Her Majesty the Queen’s 90th birthday, our oldest female chough, aged 18, laid our most recent egg. She is a remarkable bird and amazingly spiritedly for such an age. (The chough, not the Queen).
Nest number four continues to “faff”…
According to our calculations, the first eggs in nest three will be hatching in the next two or three days. We will then switch the webcam view to show the new arrivals.
The breeding choughs at Paradise Park have now increased their total egg count to eleven.
Seclusion aviary nests showing eleven eggs
Three of the nests are progressing well, with counts of four, three, and four eggs respectively. The female in nest two laid the third egg this morning, and hopefully will add one or two more. We think that the females in nests one and three have now finished, as there have been no new eggs for several days.
The birds in nests four and five are still “faffing about”. This is a technical term used by chough breeders. It means that the birds are still adding (and subtracting) to the nests. Generally, the male will bring material into the nest and a few minutes later the female will take it out again!
However, the choughs in nests four and five were later last year – and they also built “looser” nests, so we are still expecting more eggs to come.
The female in Nest 3 was seen sitting in her beautifully-built nest just after 5pm on 31st March. Over the next 20 minutes she sat, straining a bit as she produced the egg, and then recovered for a few minutes before going outside. The image above shows her mate coming into the nest to check out the egg, gently touching it with his bill.
The first chough egg for 2016 is laid in Nest 3.
In 2015 the first egg of the season was laid by the same pair at lunchtime on 1st April, so they are just about a day ahead this year.
We’re looking forward to lots more eggs, and then lots of early mornings and long days to provide food for the chough families.