Drawers were open left, right and centre. It had been a long day in the lab and I was getting tired. The assemblage I was working on was interesting though and despite the clock ticking past dinner time I continued to compare specimens with those held in our reference collection.
I’d been woken so many hours earlier by my clock-radio clicking on to a discussion of what Britain’s national bird should be. I half listened to a roll-call of all the usual candidates –the robin, the blue tit, the blackbird – but also the wren and the red kite. This raised slightly uncomfortable questions for me as I walked into work, mulling things over in my half-awake state. Is Britain a nation? If it is then presumably all those birds I just listed are fair game. If, on the other hand, you believe the wren to be the national bird of England and the red kite to be the national bird of Wales, as many do, then surely those birds are not only taken but the very fact they exist suggests that Britain is not a nation and therefore cannot have a national bird.
It’s a largely frivolous debate, of course, without any real meaning for many people. I suspect the reason the idea is being mooted, however, is to focus attention on bird species. Perhaps the organisers might even be hoping for the endangered hen harrier to win the vote. Voting for a bird is an interesting concept – it suggests a level of support at a base level. That level of support (and identification?) can be galvanised in a very real way.
The national bird of Cornwall is the red-billed chough (also sometimes known as the Cornish chough). Those from elsewhere may be unfamiliar with this unassuming bird or its story in Britain’s far Southwest. The last successful breeding season here took place in the early 1960’s. A few birds lived on (there was some speculation that several unsuccessful breeding attempts thereafter may have been from a gay pair) until the solitary survivor fluttered off this mortal coil in the 1970’s. By that point, there were already efforts underway to reintroduce the species.
This was easier said than done. Red-billed choughs are a long-lived, gregarious corvid. They live in family groups, the young remaining with their parents for 2-3 years, learning the ropes as it were. Once paired off, they stay together and use the same nest for the rest of their lives. Reintroducing them then, would probably involve moving an entire family group – except that family would be unfamiliar with its new home. Some attempts at reintroducing the birds were made in the 1980’s but these were unsuccessful.
At the turn of the millennium, Cornwall submitted a petition asking for devolution to Westminster and achieved Objective One funding from the EU. In 2001, the choughs returned. It seemed like an incredibly good omen. Chough watch was started. For a few years, the precise location of the (now successfully breeding) small population was kept secret and a 24hour watch on them was kept. Video footage and news of their activities was broadcast to an enthused Cornish public. The chough was depicted on the charter granting the earldom of Cornwall to Piers Gaveston in 1307 and still features on the Cornish coat of arms today, following public outcry when it was nearly removed. It was, in fact, once so closely associated with Cornwall that ‘the Cornish chough’ was used as a racial slur for Cornishmen.
Recolonization by the red-billed chough in Cornwall is a process that continues to be monitored and actively managed through the creation of appropriate habitat – grassland close-cropped by traditional livestock breeds. In 2014 five pairs, now spread through three locations, raised 17 young. This might be thought of as some success but there’s clearly a long way to go.
Those specimens I was comparing with the reference collection were bird bones from the archaeological layers at Gwithian, in Cornwall. Among them were two corvid bones. The best match I could find for them was jackdaw but I wasn’t entirely happy with this. As I made my way back to my desk and prepared to enter them into the database my mind wandered back to that radio report in the morning. Could these be real Cornish ‘Cornish choughs’?
The rarity of choughs in twentieth century Britain (basically present on Islay and its surrounding islands and parts of the Gower Peninsula) means that they’re not in most osteological reference collections in this country. Fortunately though, the European corvids are one of the few groups of birds that have a good criteria published for differentiating them1. My misgivings were well founded – those two bones could not have been more like those of a chough.
Historical records of the red-billed chough are surprisingly sparse. They were shot as game in Cornwall in the early nineteenth century; by as early as the sixteenth century Cornwall was allegedly the only place to find them. Just how far back does this association go though? Archaeological evidence is equally scant. Two sites have produced remains of the red-billed chough from Holocene mainland Britain: one from Mesolithic Port Eynon (where they are still found today) and a skull from fourteenth century Exeter.
These bones date from the fifth to eighth centuries AD and so are not only a rare find of British chough but push our known dates for its occurrence in Cornwall back by a millennium or more. More importantly than that however, they have been found at a site where the recent analysis of the animal bones has suggested an important role for pastoralist transhumance in the economy2.
A few summers ago we shared our campsite during our fieldwork in Mongolia with two resident families. One of these lived in an old Soviet structure adjacent to a well, the use of which they allowed us. The other lived in the same building and was a family of red-billed choughs. This was evidence for me that choughs do not mind the presence of humans so long as they have access to that short-cropped grassland habitat. In other words, their presence in this assemblage not only supports interpretations previously made but their presence against the background of those interpretations adds further support to the land management strategies being adopted to promote their recolonization of Cornwall.
A short report detailing these finds will be included in the next issue of Palores and a short news story on the same subject will also feature in the next issue of Cornwall Today.
1. Tomek, T., Bocheński, Z.M., 2000. The Comparative Osteology of European Corvids (Aves: Corvidae), With a Key to the Identification of their Skeletal Remains. Wydawnictwa Instytutu Systematyki i Ewolucji Zwierząt PAN, Kraków.
2. Broderick, L.G., 2014. A Review of Subsistence in Mediaeval Cornwall and Analysis of the Mammal Bones from Mediaeval Gwithian. Unpublished MA dissertation. Institute of Cornish Studies, University of Exeter.