Chough refers to two species of birds which were once thought to be related to Hoopoes thanks to their long curved bills. Choughs are, in fact, members of the corvid family which includes crows, ravens, and jays. A third species of “chough,” the White-winged Chough of Australia, is actually a similar-looking but genetically distinct bird which belongs to its very own genus. (1)
The corvid family is widespread and very common, but the Chough is a bird which has faced a steep decline in recent years due to a number of factors including changing agricultural practices and persecution. Although Choughs are sometimes saddled with a negative reputation, the Chough is thought of as both beloved and culturally important by many of the people who live within the Chough’s diminishing habitat. Choughs are common subjects in heraldry and appear on the family crests and coats of arms for lots of European families. (2)
Modern conservation efforts attempt to preserve and return the Chough to regions wherein these birds were once abundant. Cornwall, in particular, has celebrated the return of Choughs which had been abundant in the past but had gone extinct in the region. (3)
Chough Symbolism and Meaning
The Chough is often taken as a symbol of violence. Myths abound surrounding the reasons for the startling red color of the Chough’s beak and feet. Several myths associate this color with blood and claim that Choughs were once ordinary crows who bathed in blood and were stained by it. Such myths connect Choughs with various historical deaths. We’ll look at two examples of this in subsequent sections, but suffice it to say that Choughs are connected with martyrdom, murder, sacrifice, nobility, and transformation. (4)
Choughs once nested on cliffsides and are much more common along coastlines, however they do live inland as well. For this reason, Choughs may represent the boundary between land and sea. Choughs are sometimes connected with transitions and liminal spaces. (5)
The Cornish name for the Chough means “digger” and stems from the Chough’s habit of digging through soil in search of food. Choughs may represent searching or uncovering. (6)
Choughs appear on the coat of arms of Cornwall. Historically, Cornwall has been represented by Choughs for centuries. This heraldic symbol is interconnected with a number of Chough myths, but suffice it to say that Choughs are extremely important to Cornish history and culture. The iconic Red-billed Chough is, in fact, also known as the Cornish Chough. So, the Chough may represent Cornwall or Cornish heritage. (7)
In the past, Choughs have been the subject of persecution. They were thought of as pest birds and blamed for household thefts. One of the major crimes connected with Choughs was actually arson. It used to be believed that Choughs would carry burning sticks in their beaks and drop them onto the roofs of thatch-roofed homes, causing devastating damage. There is no real basis for this belief and it is now thought that it may have something to do with the flashy red of the Chough’s beak and feet. Regardless, Choughs have been branded with a negative reputation which associates them with arson, theft, and criminality. (8)
Chough Native American Symbolism
Choughs are not found in the Americas, however corvids often hold scared importance amongst Native American tribes. Crows and ravens are revered for their intelligence and many myths treat them as heroes who bring important resources to the land. While this cannot be directly applied to the Chough, it can at least be assumed that the Chough would be characterized similarly. (9)
Chough Christianity Symbolism
In Christian symbolism, the Chough is associated with martyrdom, sacrifice, and penance. The Chough’s red beak and feet is said to be related to the murder of Thomas Becket. Thomas Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the twelfth century. When he was appointed to this post, King Henry II began trying to influence him to acknowledge the king’s rights to dominate over the church. Archbishop Thomas Becket refused to do so and even threatened to excommunicate the king if he attempted to exercise undue authority over the church. When Henry II attempted to crown his heir without allowing the Archbishop of Canterbury to exercise his privilege of coronation, Thomas Becket went through with his threat and excommunicated the three bishops involved in the process. For his actions, Thomas Becket was slain by Henry II’s men. Thomas Becket was made a saint after his death and it is said that a crow flew down and landed in the blood which he had shed. The blood stained the beak and feet of the crow who is said to have become the first Chough. A coat of arms featuring three Red-billed Choughs has been attributed to Saint Thomas Becket several decades after his death. The death of Thomas Becket was an important event and is the backdrop of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of the most popular and influential peiecs of Medieval literature. (10)(11)
Through its connection with Saint Thomas Becket, the Chough is connected with piety, courage, and faith as well as the treachery and violence which befell the murdered saint.
Chough Celtic Symbolism
As previously stated, the Chough is both important to Cornwall and to the hagiographical traditions of Christianity in Europe. Even more significant, though, is the connection between the Chough and one of the most important figures in the history of Celtic storytelling. That is King Arthur. We will dive into the connection between Choughs and King Arthur in the myth section of this article, but know that it is sometimes thought that King Arthur transformed into a Chough upon his death. (12)
King Arthur stems from ancient Welsh mythological traditions and is essential to the literary traditions of Europe, and indeed the entire world. Through their association with the legendary King Arthur, Choughs are connected with kingship, nobility, wisdom, might, majesty, and leadership.
Irish myths often connect corvids, like crows and ravens, with the Morrigan. The Morrigan is a goddess of chaos who is associated with supernatural power, femininity, and triumph. The Morrigan is often the catalyst for important events in Irish myths and her favor is, in many cases, the thing which decides the victor of a battle. (13)
Chough in Dreams
Dreaming of a Chough may signify a transformation on the horizon. Choughs which make their homes in coastal regions can be thought of as representing transitions and metamorphoses.
Dreaming of a Chough in a context involving fire may refer to innocence or purification. It is now known that Choughs are unlikely to have ever been at fault for starting fires. Fire often represents purification, but a Chough might also signify misplaced blame.
A dream featuring the image of three Choughs might signify sacrifice or treachery.
Chough Encounters and Omens
In many of the Chough’s former habitats, seeing a Chough is a lucky occurrence which signifies that dedicated conservation efforts have borne fruit.
An encounter with a Chough might represent one’s destiny. Through their connection with King Arthur, Choughs are associated with ideas like royalty, wisdom, and potential. A Chough encounter might act as a sign that one should pursue their potential to the fullest.
Chough in Mythology & Folklore
In the following section, we’ll look both at the Chough’s role in Greek mythology, in the myth of King Arthur and at the role of the White-winged Chough (again, not a true Chough but an unrelated Australian bird with a similar appearance) in Australian Aboriginal mythology.
According to one Aboriginal myth, the Pleiades, or “seven sisters” cluster of stars, were once a group of White-winged Choughs. The Choughs were sisters and were coveted by a male Magpie who wished to marry them. One of the Chough sisters agreed, but her Magpie husband was lazy and made his wife and her sisters do all of his work. ne day, when a storm rolled in, the Choughs asked the Magpie to strip bark off of a tree to build a shelter. He refused, so the seven sisters began doing it themselves. As they worked, the Chough sisters sang a magical song which made the tree grow taller and taller. Eventually, they found themselves in the sky amongst the stars. The sisters were glad to be free of the Magpie and chose to remain in the night sky forever. (14)
According to some versions of the legend of King Arthur, Arthur was fatally wounded in battle, but before he could die, the great king’s soul entered the body of a Chough. The Chough’s red beak and feet were then said to represent the bloody circumstances of Arthur’s battlefield death. This bit of mythology was so well known and popular that it is even refenced in Don Quixote. Because Arthur was said to have become a Chough, Celtic cultures often claim that to harm or kill a Chough is to invite misfortune. (15)(16)
According to Greek mythology, the Chough, which is also referred to therein as a “sea-crow” was sacred to the Titan, Cronus. Cronus was the father of Zeus and most of the Olympian gods. He feared his children and devoured them when they were born until Zeus defeated him. Cronus is associated with time. (17)
Chough Spirit Animal
If the Chough is your spirit animal then you are likely to be intelligent, curious, and patient. Choughs can be gregarious birds, however they seem to get along quite well with one another and exhibit less aggression than similar corvid species. (18)
People with the Chough as their spirit animal are noble souls who crave justice and want, more than anything, to fulfill their potential. Others might find the Chough spirit animals to be overly serious, but people with this spirit animal are simply determined to achieve their ambitions.
Chough Totem Animal
The Chough totem animal is associated with transitions. As a guardian of the barrier between land and sea, the Chough oversees one of the earth’s most significant spaces of transition. People with the Chough totem animal often undergo major transformations throughout their lives. The Chough totem animal also enables people to help ease others through life’s major transitions.
People with the Chough totem tend to be gifted with both empathy and foresight. With these two tools at their disposal, the Chough totem is especially great at giving meaningful advice to others. This is a power with the Chough treasures and is happy to use to the benefit of friends and loved ones.
Chough Power Animal
The Chough power animal is associated with sacrifice, selflessness, and perseverance. So many myths connects Choughs with beautiful gifts emerging out of violent circumstances. Like Saint Thomas Becket, the Chough power animal grants the power to endure suffering in the name of what is right and to bring forth a bright new future from out of the turmoil of suffering.
The Chough power animal grants one the perspective to be truly selfless. Selflessness relies upon one’s vision and perspective. The ability to see immense value in things outside of one’s self is a powerful virtue. The Chough power animal allows you to sacrifice whatever is necessary to provide a brighter future.
Chough Tattoo Meaning
A Chough tattoo can have a multitude of meanings depending upon context. In general, Chough tattoos often represent royalty, wisdom, curiosity, maturity, and insight.
A tattoo of a Chough in the context of Cornish heraldry may represent Cornwall itself, Cornish pride, or the important conservation work being done to preserve Choughs in Cornwall.
A tattoo of three Choughs may represent the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket and may be chosen out of religious observance.
A Chough tattoo may also represent the incredible myths surrounding the legendary King Arthur. Such a tattoo might represent hope and rebirth.
Choughs are not nearly as common or widespread as some of their corvid cousins. Despite this, their impact is far-reaching and poignant. From conservation to rebirth, Choughs represent important work which is preserving natural landscapes, and important stories which have shaped the landscape of literature around the world. From saints to kings, the Chough reminds us that a good leader is selfless, courageous, and willing to sacrifice for the good of his followers!