Friday 24 January 2020

Country Matters: Black bird of the Celtic fringe

RARE: A female adult chough above Lizard Point, Cornwall. Photo: Barry Batchelor/PA Wire
RARE: A female adult chough above Lizard Point, Cornwall. Photo: Barry Batchelor/PA Wire

Joe Kennedy

Today, around 70 fit men and women will take the plunge into the Atlantic from a place called Ballinacourty, a point opposite Helvick Head in west Waterford, to help lifeboats.

Their swim across the bay of Dungarvan, along with a subsequent barbecue for supporters and visitors, is an annual fundraising event for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). Overhead seabirds will be curious, especially herring gulls, and later will find rich pickings.

A walk up to the peninsula headland's coastal fields and cliff-tops, with a sighting of a unique bird of the Celts, the chough or cag coisdearg, feeding or displaying aerial skills with its distinctive keow calls, could be a bonus. I remember these red-legged crows with their equally-red, curved beaks.

King Arthur of Camelot, or Avalon, the isle of apples, is the sleeping Celtic hero of British tales wherein he lies mortally wounded in a cave in Cornwall, Wales, Glastonbury or Cadbury Castle, Somerset, awaiting Judgment Day. In Irish folk tales, Fionn Mac Cumhaill also met an untimely end and his return is expected when a flat stone is found in a particular riverbed some Sunday morning.

However, in whatever manner these heroes re-appear, Arthur's return could be re-considered because of a Cornish belief that his spirit is carried by a chough, or bran gernyw, a long departed species (except in Wales) that has now made a remarkable recovery in a sea-swept tail of England.

A BBC story enthused about "brilliant news" from Cornwall of a natural recolonisation of choughs to a total of 54 birds observed this summer. Twenty years ago a re-introduction programme from Morocco failed and some ornithologists seemed to give up hope of the 'Cornish Crow' ever coming back to its historic homeland.

Choughs, pronounced "chuff", and once also called "cows" after its commonest call, are usually seen in pairs or family groups, sometimes with jackdaws, digging into sheep-cropped fields or rabbit patches for ants and spiders or probing cattle or horse droppings for insect larvae.

Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, with its elegant curved beak and glossy black plumage, short 'arms' and long 'hands' with six clearly spread flexible feather 'fingers', is a superb and graceful flyer. I have watched their dramatic aerobatics in mountainous places and cliff-tops, soaring, gliding and diving at breakneck speed down sheer drops, pulling out and shooting back up again.

The bird is seldom in trees and its cup-of-sticks nest, lined with sheep wool, feathers and grass, is usually in some secluded cliff place. In recent times, disturbance and habitat decline have resulted in a drift westwards where, along with north Mayo, Donegal and some islands, most of the estimated 2,000 population may be seen.

Tradition has it that this bird of the Celtic fringe will be found only where Celtic sounds are heard. Its return to Cornwall is significant then as there has been a sturdy revival of the Cornish tongue with 600 fluent speakers claimed and 10,000 signatories have called for public investment funding for a language project. In An Rinne - Helvic Irish is spoken in homes and is heard socially. Visitors go to improve conversation skills. So, oscail do gob, let the birds hear your mighty talk. Go gcloisfidh na héin do glór.

Sunday Independent

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