The Chough

The Chough is a red-legged, red-billed member of the crow family; called the 'Cornish chough' because of its close association with that country for many hundreds of years  The chough features on the coat of arms, of Cornwall; sitting on top of the crest flanked by a tin miner and fisherman .  The chough's Cornish name, Palores, means digger, a reference to its habit of digging away at loose soil to find invertebrates. The original meaning for the use of the chough in heraldry was                     

" Strategist in battle; watchful for friends "

Some claim that the chough was only used in for Cornishmen until late Tudor times, but as the Powell's of Castell Madoc use the chough in their arms, which pre-date Henry VII; and Thomas Beckett had the chough as his coat of arms; clearly this is a misassumption. Perhaps the chough was chosen for Beckett because the original name of the chough was a “bekit”; which name is still used for the bird in heraldry; this clever play on words is common in heraldry! Since the murder of Beckett, the City of Canterbury has adopted the chough in its' Arms.  I have no idea why the Powell's used it in their coat of arms. Except that this mystical member of the crow family (all of whom are mystical in themselves) ; is a well known resident of Wales. And some of the Powell's married Cornish women; maybe a woman brought the symbolism into Brecon?  In the 18th century, naturalists were already noting the decline of the chough in Britain. They were concerned that choughs were suffering at the hands of sportsmen and suppliers of natural history specimens. The chough, did indeed nearly die out in the British Isles.  It was in 1973 when the last of the Cornish choughs, was seen .  For the next 28 years, choughs remained absent from Cornwall; with the only recorded sightings being of a few birds passing through or escaped from captivity. (They remained in fairly healthy numbers in Ireland). Then in 2001 choughs returned naturally. Choughs are now rare in Britain, and only found in West Wales, Scotland, and Cornwall.

The chough is important to Cornish folklore, because of a Cornish legend:

It is said in Cornwall, that when King Arthur died, his soul migrated into the body of the chough. That the red legs and beak of the chough symbolise the Celtic blood spilled during Arthur's last battle, and they represent the struggle of the Celtic peoples to maintain their heritage. The legend then goes on to say that the chough would die out in Cornwall, and be gone for 3 decades. Then, suddenly the birds will return to Cornwall, indicating the imminent return of Arthur. As the chough is once again “winging the midway air” (Shakespeare) ; does this mean that somewhere in a Cornish or Welsh Primary school, a young Arthur is failing to do his arithmetic homework, as he ponders the problem of the need to keep his native tongue alive?

William Camden (English Historian 1551-1623) and Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) both describe the chough as being an unlucky bird, and a fire starter ; both had heard stories of choughs stealing candles and dropping them on thatched rooves. Choughs are one of those birds in folk history that are unlucky for some, and lucky only for those “chosen by them”. Naturally, those chosen by them, include any Cornishman; but perhaps a Powell too?