Operation Chough looks back on thirty-six years since its official launch on August 4th 1987. Here are some of our highlights, from first chicks in 1976 to releases in England in 2023.
Paradise Park’s founder, Mike Reynolds, had been interested in restoring Red-billed Choughs to Cornwall since the park had opened in 1973. Working with Padstow Bird Gardens, there have been choughs at Paradise Park almost since day one. We bred our first chough chick in 1976, and funded a PhD on chough ecology by Dr Richard Meyer. We continued to expand our flock, which is now some fifty birds strong, and have donated dozens of choughs to our restoration partners.
2003 Trial Release
In August 2003 we released a small cohort of six choughs near Zennor. The birds were radio-tagged, which was quite a new technology at the time, and we continued to monitor their movements for several months. Unfortunately, four birds perished in differing circumstances over the next few weeks, but two birds eventually settled at Wicca. These birds were a breeding pair, and would almost certainly have bred the following year.
The pair had an obvious territory, and we continued to watch their behaviour into the winter months. They were highly attuned to their environment, to the point of following the local herd of organic cows for cow-pats – but waiting for several days for insects to lay eggs, and larvae develop. Sadly, one day in December, we discovered one bird had been shot by a local man, The other bird was never seen again. A difficult end to a very promising trial.
2013 Jersey Release
We formed a partnership with Durrell Wildlfie Conservation Trust in 2010, and examined the possibility of a re-establishment of the Red-billed Chough on Jersey. This was part of a larger initiative to improve the coastal habitat of Jersey called “Birds on the Edge”
In Summer 2013, the first six birds were released from the purpose-built aviary on the Jersey coast. The monitoring team was lead by Liz Corry, who did a remarkable job in the next years, following the birds movements every day come rain, hail and sometimes sun. More birds were added to the group each year for five years.
A lot of the choughs had adopted a local coastal quarry. In 2015 one of the original pairs produced a chick in one of the huge quarry buildings – aptly called “Dusty”! The first chough chick hatched in the wild on Jersey in over one hundred years. Dusty has now produced his own young, and is still flying free over the Jersey cliffs.
2023 Kent Release
In 2015 we began our planning our next phase of releases – this time on the coast of Kent near Dover. We have partnered up with Kent Wildlife Trust, Wildwood Trust, and other organisations, with the aim of putting the chough over the White Cliffs of Dover. The chough is well-known in the folk-lore of Kent, much as it is in Cornwall. Sadly, it has been absent for much longer – more than 200 years!
As with the Jersey re-establishment, it is hoped that the chough will act as a flagship species to promote further habitat restoration in the areas where it is introduced. Also, as with the Jersey releases, Liz Corry is leading the field work – hoping to repeat earlier success.
The initial birds were installed in the release aviary last year, but due to bad weather, the release was postponed until 2023. The first brief flights have already taken place, and we are hoping the choughs will begin to range further over the next months.
Director of Conservation at Wildwood Trust, Laura Gardner, says watching them soar into the sky was a huge moment for everyone involved:
“Releasing the choughs into the wild felt a bit like sending your child to nursery for the first time – a wonderful milestone but not without a certain level of anxiety! We need to make sure they have all the relevant skills they need so they can not only survive but thrive.“