The choughs spread their wings to reach Dover Castle
In an image that looked like it could have been taken to illustrate Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ two black birds sit on the edge of a window ledge of Dover Castle, peering in inquisitively. However, the birds are not there to terrorise the occupant, quite the opposite, these red-billed choughs are a charismatic, clever species with strong connections to Kent, reintroduced to the county this summer.
Legend has it that the chough obtained its bright red beak and legs from paddling in the blood of Sir Thomas Becket following the Archbishop's gruesome murder by four of King Henry II’s knights in Canterbury Cathedral, yet anyone who spends time around the birds finds that depiction hard to believe, Liz Corry, Chough Supervisor at Wildwood Trust said: “Choughs are incredibly intelligent and they have strong personalities, they are inquisitive and sociable. They love probing around in animal dung using their long breaks to pick out insects such as dung beetles to feed on.”
“They form strong social groups and learn from each other. Since their release, we have watched them work together to chase off buzzards and rally around to warn one another about any nearby peregrine falcon - their natural predator.
“They disappeared from our Kentish landscape through loss of habitat and persecution, so we are keen to showcase the incredible nature of this brilliant bird and encourage people to take pride that they are back in our countryside.”
The appearance of the chough at Dover Castle has given cause for all of those involved in the project to celebrate!
Upon spotting and photographing the birds Colin Wiltshire of English Heritage said: “We are delighted to see the choughs making it over to the castle, we have been proud supporters of the project since it began, and this is a milestone moment.”
Over the last year, visitors to Dover Castle have delighted in seeing four red-billed choughs kept in an aviary on the site. The birds had been placed there to act as ambassadors for the reintroduction project. As they are breeding birds, the time has now come for them to head back to their home in Paradise Park, Cornwall where they will resume their role in the breeding programme. In the future, it is likely that the offspring of those four birds will be soaring over the castle where their parents were once kept."
As a result of four decades of chalk grassland restoration, these charismatic birds are now emerging from our history books and legends into the Kentish countryside. They have returned to our skies, thanks to a partnership between Wildwood Trust, Kent Wildlife Trust, and Paradise Park Cornwall.
Director of Conservation at Wildwood Trust, Laura Gardner, says watching them soar into the sky for the first time in July 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.
“We have used whistle recall so that we can get them to return to the release aviary and be sure that they can access food and shelter. Once they grow in confidence, they can identify where resources are in the wild and be less dependent on us. At that point, they may not come back but continuing the provision of food and safety from predators gives the birds the option of additional support if needed.”
The red-billed chough is a rare member of the crow family with glossy black plumage, red legs and a distinctive bright red beak. The chough was once native to Kent but became extinct in the county more than 200 years ago due to changing farming practices and persecution.
The corvid’s long-standing association with Kent is exemplified by its appearance on the coat of arms of Canterbury.