The large, heavy-billed Raven is the only wholly black crow seen throughout Portugal. The Carrion Crow is common in central and northern areas, only rarely venturing south to the Algarve. Here the ‘specialist’ member of the family is the Red-billed Chough, although it has a very restricted distribution in the extreme south-west, near Cape St. Vincent. There are other localised populations in west central and north-east Portugal and the species is more widespread in the sierras of Spain.
The Portuguese population as a whole has declined alarmingly from around 750 pairs in the 1980s to less than 200 today, with some of the smaller communities in the north becoming extinct. This is probably a direct consequence of agricultural changes, such as intensification, the use of pesticides and the replacement of ‘traditional’ crops. The 30 or so pairs in the Algarve are therefore seriously endangered. They are most easily seen from the road heading north from the Cape towards Vila do Bispo, which seems to be the easterly extent of their foraging range as I have not seen any at Budens.
Even if not immediately visible, the piercing, vibrant call of flying birds should soon betray their presence. It is hard to describe in words, but the ‘pyrrh’ stem of the scientific name is a passable rendering. In flight, the wings are more rounded than those of the Jackdaw (comparable in size) and ‘fingered’ like a large bird of prey.
Choughs are sedentary and highly sociable, usually feeding in flocks on pasture or arable land where the curved, red bill (matching the bright red legs) probes for insects in the soil and other invertebrates, including ants. Coastal populations make untidy nests in crevices in cliffs which are often reoccupied, year on year. As in some other crow species, young ‘helpers’ sometimes assist in the rearing of the chicks.
The Red-billed’s only close relative is the Alpine or Yellow-billed Chough, a mountain specialist which occurs no nearer than northern Spain. Red-billed Choughs have a wide range extending eastwards through southern Europe, Turkey, central Asia and the Himalayas to northern China. There is even a small relict population in Wales and it formerly bred in Cornwall. When working in Ethiopia in the 1970s, I was surprised to learn there was also an isolated race in the Bale and Simien mountains there.