Some years ago there was a golf resort mooted for the cliffs overlooking the beaches near where I live. It was a massive, ugly and unsustainable development that roused a lot of passions in the area and continues to cause divisions to this day. In the event those of us who opposed it were lucky enough to win. I say lucky because even though the campaign (a campaign of which I was on the letter-writing-to-the-local-paper outskirts and which I am sure gave me a nick name locally which includes words like Crazy, Hippy and Woman on the Hill) was exhaustively researched and driven by people of great courage, the recession burst upon us and rained on that particular parade of ignorance. To continue the weather metaphor, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good. Some day I will have to write about it as I have since seen the story twisted to the ends of shameless local representatives who stood against their own constituents back then but that’s for another day.
Today the Choughs visited and reminded me of one of the reasons I joined the fight to save our cliffs. Choughs (pronounced Chuff) are members of the Crow family and can be mistaken for Rooks or Ravens from a distance but their beaks are curved and thin and red and their legs which are the same bright red make me laugh and think of Muppets. Their call is the croak of a life long smoker chewing on nails. I imagine they have New Jersey accents..
They live in mountains and in coastal areas where they nest on cliffs. A group of them is called a clattering or a chattering. The Chough is listed as a ‘vulnerable’ species in Europe as the open grassland on which they feed is becoming fragmented by construction. Indeed the cliffs around here are a Special Protected Area (SPA) partly because they are the habitat of the supposedly dwindling numbers of Choughs. Other birds protected by this designation are the Cormorant, Herring Gull and Peregrine and that’s all very nice but anyone who has ever tried to have a say in how their immediate environment and its inhabitants are treated knows how much SPA means in this country when a developer with a serious grá* for money and friends in low places appears. Not very much.
I say ‘supposedly dwindling’ as in recent years I have noticed more and more of my Chough friends in these fields near the sea. Last Autumn a massive flock of them numbering over a hundred hung around at Garrarus Beach for some weeks. To me this is good news. Our country could become a big draw for nature lovers and Co. Waterford has a lot to offer in this regard. The Choughs particularly could pull in some people which may surprise some of the non-twitchers** among you.
These days the roof of my house which is the highest point around has become a favourite Chough hang out. The first time I noticed this, only last year, I was woken by an insistent banging on the glass of the skylight. When I eventually crawled over to look up I saw two Choughs staring down at me. They had stopped banging and seemed happy to just have woken me. It is hard to describe the lift it gave me.
This morning when I woke early to a rattling and banging on the roof I knew my Chough buddies had come to visit again. I crept outside and sure enough there they were in little groups of twos and threes on the chimney on the apex and on the nearby telegraph poles. Some pecked away at the lichen that stained the slate.
I like Crows, they are smart and I like watching them because they make me laugh as they stalk blackly around, their dignity ruined by their excess of self-importance (and in the case of Rooks, by their feathery bloomers). My gang of Choughs were no exception. One, possibly troubled by lice, stood and scratched like a dog his funny red leg going like the clappers and two skittered and slid along the tiles side by side as if inspecting them.
“Sorry now Missus,” I imagined them saying, “but sure it looks like we’ll have to replace the whole roof and maybe even the house too. It’s a big job that Missus, a big job.”
What a joy to see them not only as not ‘vulnerable’ but larger than life and unapologetically brash as they bang and clatter about croaking imprecations at all and sundry as if daring us to ‘bring it on’.
It would be silly to think they came and visit me because I played tiny part in protecting their home. I mean how would they have gotten their hands (wings) on a copy of the local paper and them with no money?The roofing business can’t pay much these days. But I am fairly certain that if that golf resort had gone ahead I would not be woken early on a grey Autumn day by the banging of impatient red beaks on my window inveigling me to get up out of that goddamn bed and come outside because the outside is a big and beautiful place.
*grá is Irish for love and this context also has connotations of yearning and grasping.