Alpine Chough

Pyrrhocorax graculus

A medium-sized member of the crow family that breeds at high altitudes. It is also referred to as the Yellow-billed Chough.

Other names:

Yellow-billed Chough

Alpine Chough

Family:

Crows

Length:

34cm to 38cm

Wingspan:

75cm to 85cm

Weight:

160g to 277g

What does an Alpine Chough look like?

The Alpine Chough, at first glance, has entirely black plumage. Upon closer inspection, you'll notice that the black - mainly the wings and long tails - are more of a glossy bluish-green colour. The legs are a vibrant red, and the beak is short and bright yellow with a slight downward curve - which is where the name 'Yellow-billed Chough' is derived from. The eyes are dark brown. Both male and females have the same plumage, but males generally are larger.

Recently fledged juveniles have dark black plumages, dark brown or black legs, the bill is dull yellow. Juveniles legs become red during the first winter.

They are acrobatic in flight and can be seen soaring in the updrafts at cliff faces. The high manoeuvrability is accomplished from the fanning of their tails and folding the wings. They are quite distinguishable from the closely related red-billed chough in flight, as they have less rectangular wings and longer tails - which are also less square.

Close up of an Alpine Chough (Yellow-billed Chough)

Close up of an Alpine Chough (Yellow-billed Chough)

How big is an Alpine Chough?

The alpine chough is a medium-sized member of the crow family. The total length is usually between 34 and 38cm (13.4 - 15 inches). Their tails are fairly long relative to the size of their bodies between 12 and 14cm (4.7 - 5.5 inches). The wingspan ranges between 75 and 85cm (30 - 33 inches).

How much does an Alpine Chough weigh?

The average weight for a male is between 194 and 277g (6.8 - 9.8 ounces) and females usually slightly smaller at between 160 and 254g (5.6 - 9 ounces).

What is the scientific name for an Alpine Chough?

The scientific name is Pyrrhocorax graculus.

The specific name (second part), graculus, is Latin for 'Jackdaw'.

The genus, Pyrrhocorax, is derived from Greek and translates to 'flame-coloured raven'. This current binomial name was formerly applied to the red-billed chough.

Alpine Chough in flight

Alpine Chough in flight

How do you pronounce Alpine Chough?

Most people wonder how to pronounce the second part of the name, Chough. The most common way it is pronounced is as Alpine 'chuff'.

How long do Alpine Choughs live for?

The average lifespan for an alpine chough is between 8 and 10 years. However, the maximum recorded age for one of these birds was 19 years.

Are Alpine Choughs endangered?

Alpine Choughs are currently not threatened, and therefore they are listed as a species of Least Concern on the Global IUCN List.

The population in Europe is stable, with an estimated population of 48,000 to 96,000 pairs. A staggering 50% of this population can be found across the Alps.

Estimated population by country:

  • 17,000 in France
  • 10,000 in Spain
  • 9,000 in Austria
  • 8,000 in Switzerland
  • 8,000 in Greece
  • 7,000 in Italy
  • 6,000 in Croatia
  • 2,000 - 4,000 in Germany
  • 2,000 in Bulgaria
  • 1,000 in Slovenia
  • 300 in Albania

Global warming is one of the biggest threats to the Alpine Chough, as, over time, it could cause the preferred Alpine climate to move higher or entirely disappear. Other threats to these birds include heavy metals and pesticides in the mountain soil, heavy rain and shooting.

Natural predators include peregrine falcons, golden eagles and Eurasian eagle-owls. From time to time, common ravens will take the nestlings.

Alpine Chough feeding juvenile

Alpine Chough feeding juvenile

What do Alpine Choughs eat?

In summer, their diets mainly comprise of invertebrates. This includes beetles, snails, grasshoppers, ants, dragonflies and caterpillars. They will also take small amphibians, reptiles, small birds, small rodents and eggs.

The diet becomes more varied during autumn and winter with extensive types of seeds, fruits, and berries. They will travel in flocks to nearby ski resorts and villages in the mountains to scavenge and forage for food before heading back up into the mountains at night to roost. During this, they will often follow walkers in the mountains for scraps. These birds have a particular fondness for sultanas!

Most of the foraging and feeding is done on the ground, and usually in small flocks.

They can even be quite tame and will even take food from the hands of humans occasionally.

Alpine Chough taking food from human hands

Alpine Chough taking food from human hands

Do Alpine Choughs mate for life?

Yes, they are generally lifelong monogamous and will form a pair for life. Pairs usually will stay together throughout the year too.

Where do Alpine Choughs nest?

Alpine Choughs build nests in quite a few different habitats. These include shelves or ledges at the top of caves, cliff faces, roof spaces of abandoned buildings and occasionally mine-shafts. Both the male and female build the nests. Males will generally gather the materials and bring them back to the female, who then constructs the nest. Sometimes, youngsters from a previous brood will assist with nest building.

The nests are made from a mixture of sticks and roots, with linings of moss, feathers and grass. Mostly a solitary nester, but in areas with high population density, loose flocks are formed.

Close up of an Alpine Chough

Close up of an Alpine Chough

How many eggs does an Alpine Chough lay?

Clutches usually are 4 eggs, but can sometimes be up to 6 eggs in total.

The eggs are incubated by only the female for between 18 and 21 days. During this time, the male will feed the female and occasionally by the helper.

Chicks stay in the nest for around 30 days of age and are fed by both parents.

Egg-laying varies depending on the range, but will usually start in May and finish in mid-June in Europe and Morocco.

What do Alpine Chough eggs look like?

The eggs are mostly a glossy whitish colour and have either buff or light-green speckling. The average size for the eggs is 33.9 x 24.9mm (1.33 x 0.98 in).

Alpine Chough eggs have fewer pores than those of lowland species and therefore lose less water by evaporation at low atmospheric pressure. This makes it possible for these choughs to lay their eggs at higher altitudes than other birds.

What does a Alpine Chough sound like?

The call is not like other corvids at all and that makes it distinctive. The main call is a 'preeep' with a descending whistling 'sweeeooo' sound. A harsh 'churr' sound is also often given.

The song is a subdued warbling, which is mainly when birds are resting or feeding together.

Alpine Chough Call

Daniele Baroni, XC638490. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/638490.

A pair of Alpine Choughs

A pair of Alpine Choughs

What is the habitat of an Alpine Chough?

Pastures on high mountains are preferred habitats for these birds, and in winter, they will descend into upper valleys. Ski resorts throughout Europe are suitable habitats, as these birds scavenge the human habitat. This is mainly at altitudes of over 1200m and up to 2880m in Europe. In the Himalayas, this can be between 3500m and 5000m, and in Nepal, they have been recorded of heights of up to 8300m following climbers.

In ski resorts and towns, alpine choughs can often be seen waiting outside of hotel windows for food. This is an amusing and welcoming sight for guests, but not so much for the hotel owners!

These birds have also been reported to nest at heights of 6500m (21,300 ft), which makes them the highest nesting birds in the world.

Where do Alpine Choughs live?

These birds breed in the mountains of Spain, the Alps and Southern Europe. They also breed in Central Asia and the Himalayas to western parts of China. They can also be found throughout Morocco, Crete and Corsica.

Alpine Chough in the mountains

Alpine Chough in the mountains

Where can I see Alpine Choughs?

Ski resorts, mountain towns and areas lower down in the valleys are the best places to see these birds during the winter. This is because the birds will move to lower levels once the first snowfall begins to forage during the day before returning up the mountain to roost at night. They do have a habit of following climbers and walkers in the mountains scavenging for food.

During March and April, alpine choughs will frequent villages at the top of valleys before returning to the meadows.

Do Alpine Choughs migrate?

Alpine Choughs are considered mainly sedentary, with their daily movements of up to 20km and 1600m in altitude to lower down feeding areas. After feeding, they return up the mountain to roost.

Ringing studies in Europe have shown that birds generally don't move more than 50km from their natal area.

Other birds in the Crows family