The Alpine chough is a familiar figure for mountain-goers: an acrobat of the air, it sails effortlessly around the highest peaks facing the most impetuous winds. Winter tourism allows these birds to resist even during the cold season at altitudes of over 3’000 m. In the vicinity of the mountain restaurants and picnic spots they abandon all fear of humans and let the tourists spoil themselves with every delicacy.
In case of bad weather, the Alpine choughs descend into the valley even in summer and can be seen flying in groups over the roofs of the villages, heralds of early snowfall. Like many corvids, the Alpine choughs are monogamous; faithful couples have already been observed together for more than eight years.
Everything you need to know about the Alpine chough:
In summer, the Alpine chough can be observed almost exclusively above the upper limit of the vegetation. It nests on rocky walls and feeds on alpine meadows and along the edges of snowfields. In winter, but only in the presence of heavy snow, it descends to the valley floor, frequenting meadows, orchards and inhabited centres. Tourist resorts located at high altitudes offer the species a safe source of food throughout the year, allowing it to winter even up to 2,500-3,000 meters above sea level. The Alpine chough is definitely a gregarious type of bird, and can be observed gathered in flocks of several dozen individuals, even up to a thousand in winter. It makes regular daily movements between the dormitories – or the nests placed on the rock – and the feeding spots.
- Scientific name: Pyrrhocorax graculus.
- Weight: 180 – 270 g.
- Wingspan: 65 – 74 cm.
- Age: Up to 23 years.
- Diet: Omnivorous.
- Habitat: Mountains and particularly cracks in the rocks, where they go nesting.
- Threats: The increasing presence of men into the mountainous environment and the preparation of ski slopes at high altitude and consequent excavation of vast alpine meadows.
The Chough has a completely glossy black plumage, with a yellow beak, which is certainly its most typical feature. Rather short and orange-red legs, black nails and dark sole. Long, rounded wings and tail. Its weight is about 180-270 grams, for a length of about 36-39 cm, and has a very wide wingspan in relation to its modest size, about 65-74 cm. The length of the tail is greater than the width of the wing. The apex of the wing is rounded with fairly short fingers. The base of the tail is quite narrow.
There is no sexual dimorphism in the colouring, even if the males are slightly larger than the females; only the young differ from the adults for the blackish colouring of the legs, which then will lighten up to eventually become red.
Distributed between Europe and Asia, the species has a very fragmented range, which includes the mountains of central-southern Europe down to the reliefs of Morocco. In Europe, it prefers medium and high mountain environments and is present with a strong and wide population on the Alpine arch, where it seeks shelter in rocky walls at high altitude.
The Alpine chough is a sedentary bird, in summer it mainly flies over very high areas, at altitudes of up to 3000 m, feeding along the alpine meadows and snowfields, while in winter, in case of heavy snow, it goes down to the valley, seeking shelter in orchards and towns.
The Alpine chough feeds on worms, snails, insect larvae, berries and, on occasion, even on small birds and mammals that it finds already dead. During the winter season it goes down to low altitudes, in the immediate vicinity of inhabited centres, in search of organic waste.
These corvids have managed to develop an ability to tolerate human disturbance and focus more on the search for food, while populations living in wilder areas suffer less from the disturbance, but are also less able to tolerate it. In the most touristic site, the frequent lack of interest of alpine areas and natural prey was also observed in favour of restaurants and shelters where it is easier to find food scraps from humans (hikers, skiers…).
These are behavioural changes that, while on the one hand seem to simplify the life of Alpine choughs, on the other they can cause many negative effects. The loss of attention to possible threats, for example, can expose them to greater risks coming from a diet based on a different and certainly not healthier food than their “natural” one.
During the nest building period (in late spring), the Alpine chough looks for very safe places among the rocky crevices, where to deposit its voluminous nest, made up of twigs and dry grasses. Once finished, the female will lay an average of 5 eggs, which will be hatched for 21 days, exclusively by the mother. Once the eggs have hatched and the young chicks are born, they will stay in the nest, fed by both parents for another 35 days, they will then fly alongside the parents, learning all the necessary tricks for searching for food and provide for themselves.
The Alpine chough is sufficiently studied as far as ecology and distribution go, but, due to the objective difficulty of carrying out investigations in the harsh and rocky environments in which the species lives and nests, there is a lack of sufficiently detailed quantitative data on the size of the colonies in the Alps. However, the European populations of Alpine chough show stable demographic trends and, therefore, the species is considered to be in a favourable conservation status.
Despite the fragmented range, due to the strong predilection of the species for high mountain environments, the European breeding population is quite large – more than 130,000 pairs according to the most recent estimates, equal to just under half of the global population of the species – and remained stable in the decades 1970-1990. Trend that remains unchanged in the following decade too, 1990-2000, for most European populations, including the key ones of France, Russia and Turkey.
Federico Fiorillo is an Italian nature guide and content writer based in the magnificent Val de Bagnes, Switzerland. He’s an avid hiker and snowboarder and he travels to the great wilderness areas of the world to see the wildlife and birds he’s passionate about.
In 2008 and 2011 he joined two Brazilian wildlife field trips in Bahia and decided that observing birds in their habitat was going to be one of his driving passions. He completed a birdwatching course with EBN Italia in 2013, and then in 2014 and 2015 he travelled to South East Asia, Australia and the United States where he joined a photographic workshop at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah.
From 2016 to 2018 he lives in New Zealand, where he collaborates in environmental projects at the Otorohanga Kiwi House, which since 1971 protects kiwi and other New Zealand native birds, among the projects he worked hands on the most rewarding was the one aiming to release Brown Kiwis into the wild.
In 2017, he completes a backcountry survival course obtaining the skillsets needed to thrive in-stead of just survive in the face of adversity in the wilderness. In 2017 he also joins a NZ Bird Photography Tour in Ulva Island and at the Royal Albatross Center of the Otago Peninsula, home to the world’s only mainland Royal Albatross breeding colony.
After his travels across the South Pacific, following his experiences in 2018 he moves in the Swiss Alps where he’s now a nature guide leading tours in the alpine region between Switzerland, Italy and France. Leading nature walks and overnight hiking trips, teaching tourists and locals the secrets of the plants and animals living in this alpine region.
Inspired by an alternative lifestyle he believes in the importance of being in connection with the natural environment and feels the responsibility of interpreting the natural wealth of a site, educating and informing other of the different aspects of that particular area.