The Chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) belongs to the Crow family, along with the Raven, Rook and the Common Crow. It is bluish black, with red or orange-coloured beak and legs. All of the crow family bear the heraldic name of corbie (from the French corbeau) and the same device is normally used to represent them all.
The Chough is sometimes referred to as the Cornish Chough, Aylet or Sea Wallow. Known as 'the king of crows', the commonly accepted meaning for a Chough in heraldry is 'Strategist in battle; watchful for friends'. The colour Argent (silver) means 'Peace and sincerity'.
The Corbet coat, Or a raven Sable, is canting heraldry, and the first known of the family bore the Norman nickname of Le Corbeau, The Raven.
The chough (or Cornish chough as it is now termed) differs from the corbie only by having its beak and legs red (as do the real choughs). Although the red beak and legs are essential to the chough, often blazons will perversely specify, for example, Argent three Cornish choughs Sable beaked and legged Gules, where Argent three choughs is sufficient.
The original name for a chough was a beckit, which allowed canting heraldry for the City of Canterbury (right) with its commemoration of its martyr Saint Thomas à Beckett. These arms were based on those attributed to Beckett - “Argent, three Cornish choughs (beckits) proper two and one” – Tomas A'Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1162-70.
The Bowdlers are related to Reginald Fitz-Urse, murderer of Becket.
A coincidence? or could this connection be why the Chough was adopted by the later Bowdlers.
The use of the Chough had been confined to Cornish families until Barker, who was Garter King of Arms, temp. Henry. VIII. granted it to any applicants for arms, and amongst others to Cardinal Wolsey, who was borne in Suffolk; and so now borne by Christ Church College, Oxford.
Other bearers include:
“Argent , three Cornish choughs proper” – Peneston, Cornwall (and Peniston, Oxfordshire).
“Argent , a Cornish chough proper” – Trevethin, Cornwall.
“Argent, a fesse Gules between six Cornish chough” – Onslow, Shropshire.
“Azure, a bend or, and on a chief Argent two Cornish choughs proper” – Vyner.
“Azure, three Cornish choughs proper; on a chief Gules a lion passant guardant Or” – Town of Canterbury.
“Sable, guttee d'eau, on a fesse Argent, three Cornish choughs” – Cornwallis, Bishop of Lichfield, 1750; Archbishop of Cant., 1768-83.
“On, a cross engrailed Gules, in the dexter chief a Cornish chough proper” – Massenden, co. Lincoln.
“Argent, three arrows Gules one and two between as many Cornish choughs proper two and one” – Chastein.
“Azure, a lion passant Or; on a chief Argent three Cornish choughs proper” – Roffey.
Sadly, the real chough is under threat, modern agriculture having reduced its food supply, and nest robbers (who profit the more as birds become rarer) having reduced the number of chicks. The bird King Arthur's spirit entered at his death flies no longer in England, not even in Cornwall to where it is eponymously supposed to belong, and in the Celtic fringes it is still in some danger. Year-round grazing by cattle is beneficial, for this keeps the grass short-cropped and fosters the supply of the soil and dung insects that form its diet, and it is now hoped that the Government will reward farmers who maintain suitable habitats.
For more info please see:
RSPB - Chough
Cornwall Chough Project