Also known as the Yellow-billed Chough, the Alpine Chough is a bird that belongs to the crow family. It is only one of two species in the genus Pyrrhocorax, and it has two extant subspecies that breed from the high mountains from Spain through to southern Europe and North Africa to Central Asia, India, and China. It may also nest at a high altitude than any other bird, and its eggs have adapted to thin atmosphere to improve oxygen intake and water loss reduction.
As a typical crow, it has glossy black plumage. As you can also imagine from its name, it has a yellow bill. It also has red legs and distinctive calls. It is known for its buoyant and acrobatic flight, as it has widely spread flight feathers. The Alpine Chough mates for life and displays fidelity to its breeding site which is usually a crevice in a cliff face or a cave. Its nest is lined with sticks, and they lay between 3 to 5 whitish eggs that have brown blotched on them. They feed in flocks on short grazed grasslane, and will eat invertebrate during the summer and fruit during the winter. It will also approach tourist sites to find additional food.
Like many birds, it is subject to predation and parasitism. The changes in agricultural practice have caused decline in local populations, however this is an abundant and widespread species so it is not threatened globally. However, climate change may be a long-term threat as it will need to shift from its current alpine habitat to higher altitudes.
The two subspecies of the Alpine Chough are:
- P. g. graculus – found in Europe, North Africa, Turkey, northern Iran, and the Caucusus. This is the nominate species.
- P. g. digitatus – first described by the German Naturalists, Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg and Wilhelm Hemprich in 1833. It is larger and has stronger feet than the P. g. graculus. It breeds in Asia, mainly in the Himalayas.
Adults in the nominate subspecies of the Alpine Chough are quite small. They are 37 to 39 cm long, and have a 75-85 cm wingspan. Males are slightly larger than the females. P. g. digitatus is slightly larger, weighing in at 191 to 244 grams, while the P. g. graculus is only 188 – 252 g. It has stronger feet as well.
The Alpine Chough are known for their calls. Their vocalizations include a ripping preep and a whistling sweeoo call. They also have a rolling churr sound, which is an alarm call. They also have a variety of squeaks and warbles which are chirped when they are either resting or feeding.
This bird is a species that breeds at high altitudes. In Europe, it breeds at 4,130 – 9,450 feet. In Morocco it breeds at 9,450 – 12,800 feet, and those in the Himalayas breed between 11,500 – 16,000 feet. As a result, its nests are on average 21,300 feet higher than any other bird species, including the Red-billed Chough which is a close relative. Some Alpine Chough’s have even been seen by Mountainers ascending Mount Everest, at an altitude of 26,900 feet! They will nest in cavities on inacessible rock faces and even holes between rocks in fields. They will forage in scree slopes, alpine meadows, and more. During the winter time, they will congregate around human settlements like hotels, ski resorts, and other tourists facilities. Fortunately for these birds, many tourists will provide food for them at their hotel windows – much to hotel owners’ dismay.