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Jagdhausalmen Alpine Pastures, Defereggen, East Tirol, Austria, Europe
Specials

The Alpine Chough: A Master of the Mountains

Updated on 07.12.2021 in Bits & Pieces, Photos: Lene Harbo Pedersen

Who are you? Three types of black bird can be found above the treeline in Tirol: alpine choughs, carrion crows and common ravens. The alpine chough is smaller than the others.
Who are you? Three types of black bird can be found above the treeline in Tirol: alpine choughs, carrion crows and common ravens. The alpine chough is smaller than the others.

Hikers familiar with the mountains of Tirol will know all about the alpine chough. These black birds with their eye-catching yellow beaks can be found circling in the air above many alpine summits. But did you know that the alpine chough can fly at speeds of up to 200km/h – and is even capable of lying? We sat down for an interview with Christiane Böhm, head of the bird department at Innsbruck Alpine Zoo, to find out more. 

Dr Böhm, many hikers will have found themselves being followed by a few alpine choughs as they make their way through the mountains. Is it because these birds are particularly interested in humans?

Alpine choughs area curious birds, but I wouldn' t say they are interested in humans per se. They are actually more interested in what we have to offer them. That is why you will often see alpine choughs circling in the air at the top of a mountain – they know people often sit down and have a snack when they get to the summit. 

Sounds like they are clever birds.  

Absolutely. I would even go so far as to say that they have a certain level of self-awareness – in the animal world that is a sign of high intelligence. We have found out, for example, that alpine choughs are capable of lying. We put a piece of food into their enclosure so that initially only a single bird could see it. This bird then let our a cry which is normally used to warn the other birds of danger approaching from the air. As the other birds looked to the sky to see what was coming, the bird who had let out this warning cry quickly flew down and gobbled up the food. That shows alpine choughs are able to put themselves in the place of other creatures and predict how they might react.

Dr Christiane Böhm 

The head of the bird department at Innsbruck Alpine Zoo is also in charge of the zoo's institute for research and teaching. For over 30 years now the alpine zoo has looked after abandoned birds. It also carries out research into bird behaviour. Dr Böhm says that she does not have a favourite bird: "It's a bit like with children – I love them all."

Christiane Böhm 

What are you thinking?

Alpine choughs are among the animals with a sense of self-awareness – a skill that makes it possible for them to put themselves in the place of other alpine choughs and animals.
What are you thinking? Alpine choughs are among the animals with a sense of self-awareness – a skill that makes it possible for them to put themselves in the place of other alpine choughs and animals.

Do you speak the "language" of the alpine chough? 

A bit. As with all foreign languages, my passive vocabulary is bigger than my active vocabulary. Alpine choughs use a range of calls and sounds to communicate. You can learn what they mean, but it is much harder to recreate them yourself.

Can you give us a few examples of the things alpine choughs "say"?  

In the 1980s we had a student at the zoo who recorded and analysed a lot of the sounds made by alpine choughs. His work made it possible for us to recognise patterns. For example, our alpine choughs had specific calls they used for members of staff and visitors. There was even a special one for a paraglider who used to fly over the zoo regularly. The birds also had a call they used for the head of the bird department at the time. They didn't like her because she always came and checked their nests!

Sometimes I am not sure whether or not a bird I can see is in fact an alpine chough, especially if it is quite far away. Is there a special way of recognising them? 

Keep an eye out for a yellow beak and orange legs. Their call is also easy to recognise – a high-pitch screech. The other black birds you are likely to see above the treeline are carrion crows and common ravens. Compared to these, alpine choughs are significantly smaller and have rounder wings.

Up, up and away! Alpine choughs are known for their incredible skills in the air.
Up, up and away! Alpine choughs are known for their incredible skills in the air.

What do alpine choughs eat?  

They lots of different things – pretty much anything and everything they find. In the high alpine terrain they call home, there is not much when it comes to food. That is why they have to be flexible about what they eat. They enjoy cheese and dried meat thrown away or dropped by hikers. If you want to give them something, I recommend raisins. It is better to give them something like than than something which has a lot of salt.

Aerial acrobats. Alpine choughs can deal with all weather conditions in the high mountains. At top speed they pull their wings in close to their body to achieve an aerodynamic shape.
Aerial acrobats. Alpine choughs can deal with all weather conditions in the high mountains. At top speed they pull their wings in close to their body to achieve an aerodynamic shape.

I am fascinated by the way they fly. I could watch for hours as they soar, dive and hover in the air. Why are they able to fly so well?  

People have always been fascinated by the acrobatic abilities of the alpine chough. They are able to deal very well with the rapidly changing wind conditions in the high mountains. Their relatively long, rounded wings and their long tail feathers make it easy for them to cruise through the air and turn quickly when required.

Can alpine choughs be found only in the mountains?  

In the winter months you can observe them doing a little "city shopping" further down in the valley. 

Bon appétit! Alpine choughs like to feast on the cheese and dried meat left behind by walkers in the mountains. If you wish to feed them, raisins are a less salty and therefore better option.
Bon appétit! Alpine choughs like to feast on the cheese and dried meat left behind by walkers in the mountains. If you wish to feed them, raisins are a less salty and therefore better option.

What is "city shopping"? 

It is a phenomenon which has been observed for 150 years. In the morning the birds fly down into the city and spend a few hours there looking for food. They then fly back up into the mountains to sleep. By pulling their wings in close to their body and assuming an aerodynamic shape they can reach speeds of up to 200km/h as they descend. Their body is perfect for high speeds like that. For example, they have small feathers which cover the nostrils and stops air from rushing in when they are diving fast. At full speed it takes them just a few seconds to fly from the Nordkette mountains high above Innsbruck down into the city centre.

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