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03 November, 2014

Nutritious supper halting decline in Scotland’s choughs

An extra snack each day for fledglings is helping to prevent the loss of one of Scotland’s rarest resident breeding birds, says Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

An extra snack each day for fledglings is helping to prevent the loss of one of Scotland’s rarest resident breeding birds, says Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

Scotland’s red-billed chough population is restricted to the islands of Islay and Colonsay and has been in serious decline for several years. Only 39 breeding pairs were counted on Islay in 2013 compared with 95 breeding pairs in 1986.

Conservationists from Islay and Aberdeen University who had been studying Islay’s chough population noticed that the problem seemed to be a poor survival rate for young choughs. Few birds were managing to survive the two to three year period from when they leave the nest as fledglings through to adulthood.

To try to help them through these difficult early years and halt the population decline, SNH and the Scottish Chough Study Group, with the help of local farmers, joined forces to provide additional food for the young birds. For the last three seasons, the young choughs have been provided with a nutritious mealworm snack at their pre-roost feeding areas, before they go to their communal roosts at night.

Rae McKenzie, SNH policy and advice manager said: “This year we have started to see the dividends of this work. An Islay-wide census of choughs carried out in collaboration with the Scottish Chough Study Group and the RSPB, as part of a wider survey including England, Wales and the Isle of Man, counted 46 breeding pairs. This includes several new pairs of young adults which we have been feeding at the sites during the project.

“Islay is also now home to a healthy flock of 40 young choughs, something that has been missing from the population in recent years. These young adults will be available to breed in coming years.”

Eric Bignal of the Scottish Chough Study Group said: “In the long-term, providing food in this way cannot substitute for better management of Islay's special habitats, so that a healthy population of choughs can support itself. But, in the shorter term, by providing food we can help make sure that the chough population remains viable and these enigmatic birds retain their rightful place as an important and attractive part of Scotland’s bird life.”

Longer term habitat management to benefit chough is being encouraged through Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) options designed specifically for chough habitats. A number of farmers on Islay are taking part in this scheme.


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