Odd Name With A History


Red-billed chough in flight, Cornwall (image from Wikimedia Commons)

In the U.K. and Ireland there’s a bird like a crow with a red bill, red legs, and a very odd name. 

Red-billed choughs are found in Europe, Asia, and northern Africa but the smallest race, the Cornish chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), is endemic to the British Isles.

Red-billed choughs in Cornwall (photo by Andrew on Flickr, CC license)

Centuries ago red-billed choughs were common on the south coast of England where they were revered enough to appear in heraldry.  The City of Canterbury’s coat of arms (at left below) includes three choughs from Saint Thomas Becket’s coat of arms.  (Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in the Cathedral in 1170 by followers of King Henry II.)
A second example comes from the less famous Peter of Bowhay whose arms contain a single chough (at right).

(left) City of Canterbury coat of arms (photo by Julian Walker via Flickr CC license)
(right) Arms of Petre/Peter of Bowhay, Dunchideock, Devon (via Wikimedia Commons)

The word “chough” looks odd because the gh sound has gone out of use. In most English dialects it’s now silent (light or neighbor) or pronounced “f” (enough or laugh).  Here’s what the <gh> used to sound like:

The name chough, now pronounced CHUF, originally mimicked the bird’s sound.  Can you hear the old resemblance in these chough calls?

In the 20th century Cornish choughs disappeared from England though they remained in Ireland, Wales, western Scotland and the Isle of Man.  In 2001 choughs returned to nest in Cornwall.

Nowadays you can see and hear them at Cornwall’s cliffs, calling “Chough!” as they fly.

Red-billed choughs take to the air, Cornwall (photo by Paul Gillard via Flickr, CC license)

(photo and audio credits are in the captions. Click on the captions to see the originals.)

(*) <gh> has a throaty sound in Scottish English.  Elsewhere chough is sometimes said “shuf.”