Sunday, 29 March 2020

Tales From The Rookery

I must have been dimly aware of Rooks since I was a baby, as they used to Caw loudly from the trees near my home. If I'd been able to ask anyone at the time they'd have probably told me they were "just some old crows", for even country people have always mixed up the two species. We even have the word scarecrow, even though the crows, being carrion eaters, do little or no damage to the farmers' crops. And neither do Rooks for that matter, once the crop is established, in fact they eat insect pests so may be beneficial overall.



Most of the crow family have a reputation for evil and mischief, possibly because of the Carrion Crow's habit in days of yore to feed on the dead on battlefields or the gallows. Nowadays they're more likely to be feasting on wildlife killed by cars. I'm fairly convinced that their close cousin, the Magpie, has hugely increased in numbers in recent decades as a result of this food-source. At one time you mostly saw them in thorny scrub, well away from people; nowadays if you travel the roads in early morning, before there's much traffic about, they are the bird you're most likely to encounter, as they feast on anything killed overnight.



The crow family are known to naturalists as Corvids - and very tempting it was to call this post "Corvid 19", as I can sometimes convince myself that there are 19 Rooks in the picture above. It is of course a rookery, where the birds are nesting at present and are probably sitting on eggs by now. There is an old piece of folklore that says that if the Rooks build high in the trees it will be a good summer - and what a load of rubbish that is! They use the same nests year after year. 

In winter they gather in even larger numbers at roosts (which are also called rookeries, rather confusingly) often in the company of the smaller Jackdaw. These roosts can contain thousands of birds. They tend to flock together in greater and greater numbers as winter progresses. In the evening they gradually assemble in the fields near the roost site, then, just as it's almost dark they all ascend, as if to some invisible signal, into the treetops. It's one of the great, but little known, wildlife spectacles of these islands. And it's also one of the noisiest as they are very vocal birds.



The fellow above is a Jackdaw, easily recognisable by their smaller size, their light-coloured eye and the grey feathers around the head. Just like me the Jackdaw gets greyer and greyer as it gets older! 

Both Jackdaws and Rooks appear to be playful birds, especially on windy days. On the farm where I worked years ago, there was a huge barn and when the wind was in a certain direction they would fly towards the barn sheltering from the wind, then would climb up steeply to the top of its roof where the wind would suddenly catch them and throw them high in the air. They then used to fly back and repeat the process again and again. If they weren't playing then I don't know what they were doing!

When they tired of that game they had another. This involved flying up to the vertical side of the strawstack and hanging on for as long as possible. Again there seemed no practical reason for this behaviour.



Unlike some birds who appear to have an inate ability to build nests, the Rook, who as far as we can tell is one of the more intelligent birds, has but the sketchiest idea of how to construct one. They appear to experiment and by trial and error achieve a large heap of sticks which somehow stays aloft, not only for the nesting season, but right through the year including the winter gales. As I've mentioned elsewhere they steal material from each others nests but never pick up anything that falls to the ground.

According to some of the old farm-workers I used to know, Rooks hanging around the farm in the morning meant that bad weather was on the way. It's difficult to prove this one way or the other but, from their elevated position they could certainly see dark clouds approaching.

Another tale was that if Rooks moved away from a farm it spelled bad luck. As my father pointed out to me once, you'd have to be farming pretty badly if things got so desperate that the Rooks moved on!



There is a (slightly) serious point to the pictures above. A Rook's eyes point forwards so it can't see all around as some birds can and is unaware of what's going on behind. That may be one advantage to their gregarious lifestyle - there's always someone on lookout. 



Above is a Carrion Crow with a cruel-looking beak, ideal for tearing apart the dead creatures on which it feeds. A Rook on the other hand has a long, pointed bill with which to probe the newly-ploughed fields for worms and grubs. The other way to tell them apart is the old country saying, "If you sees a lot of Crows together, they be Rooks. But one Rook on his own? Tha's a Crow". It's all down to the way they feed: a Carrion Crow discovering a dead vole or mouse will want it all to itself; whereas Rooks feed mainly on earthworms which are hidden below the surface, so many birds feeding together will soon find the best hunting ground for worms.



Oh, and for those who like those strange collective nouns for birds and animals: a lot of noisy Rooks, all crowded together and chattering and shouting at the same time, is known as a parliament of Rooks. About which I shall say no more.


Take care.


23 comments:

  1. Great post, John about one of my favourite families, much maligned and under-appreciated, I might add. The sheer intelligence of corvids impresses me more with the passing years. I have always used the term "roost" for a gathering of Rooks in the non-breeding season, and a "rookery" for the area where the colony makes its nests.

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  2. How interesting, and I don't know that I've ever seen rooks, but probably just our more ordinary crows. Yes they are very intelligent...and have two songs apparently. At least that's what I've heard at times...the caw caw and then a more trilled kind for some reason. They do know what they're doing, even if I don't!

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  3. I loved reading this. It makes me wonder about the local crows here. We've been seeing them gathered together quite a bit in a particular spot on one of our usual walks. Maybe there is a rookery there in the trees. I think here we only see two corvids, Ravens and Crows. I probably should do more research on that. There is a Great Egret rookery a couple of miles from us that's been used, according to local news and legend, for many, many years.

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  4. My favourite bird as you probably know John. The same ones that flew over the farm each morning from a huge rookery now fly over my bungalow which is only two fields away from where I used to live.

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  5. This was such an interesting read...I don't have anything interesting to add.

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  6. I enjoyed this post very much. I'm new here so I've got a lot of catching up to do. I love the photos of the birds. Be safe and have a wonderful day, hugs, Edna B.

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  7. Thank you for the interesting comparison of crows and rooks.

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  8. "As I've mentioned elsewhere they steal material from each others nests but never pick up anything that falls to the ground."
    So I shall have to sweep up the nests that fell in the garden last night I see, there I was thinking nice easy twigs for rebuilding. Thank you for all that information, I do love my jackdaws that live and nest in the grave yard and church.

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  9. Wonderful post and images, John
    Thanks for your explanation about the rock on my post today, I appreciate it.

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  10. I love them and there is nothing nicer than to stand listening to them in the rookery.
    Briony
    x

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  11. I'm wondering if we have rooks here. I always assume I am looking at crows but will have to check this out. I have heard that they are the smartest of the birds by far.

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  12. I adore the corvid family. They are such intelligent, family minded birds, and a joy to watch.
    Thanks for this post.

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  13. The farmers used to shoot them around here when I was you and hang the carcass in a fence, use to see loads near the brook on the way to the next village. Now you just see lots flying around. The road kill around here tends to disappear quick as the Red Kites are more likely to clear it up, you do see a couple of Crows feeding on the odd one along with magpies but you all so see the crows chasing the Kites off. The place I used to work had a rookery in the trees opposite which was fun to watch at times

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  14. I've always liked Rooks... probably because it's my last name!!!
    I don't think we have any rooks here in Ontario..... perhaps I'm the only one!!! heheh

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  15. They are such a social family group. Fun to watch.

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  16. Interesting post John. Coming from the countryside, I have always liked Rooks.

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  17. We have crows and ravens, but no rooks that I know of. They really are a great family group, but noisy neighbours on the whole!!

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  18. I did not know that about crow’s eyes. Crows occasionally roost in a stand of tree across the road from us, but only a few times a year. I always wonder how why. We have fish crows where I live now (South Carolina), a new bird for me. You can only distinguish them from their regular crow cousins by their call.

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  19. Your rooks, crows and jackdaws are like our ravens John, so many names for the blackbird ๐Ÿ˜‰ Beautiful series of silhouette shots ๐Ÿ’™ Mr and Mrs Raven are a pain in the proverbial when they argue outside my window early in the morning!

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  20. We don't have rooks in Ontario but we have ravens which are also large and have a croaky call. A couple of days ago I saw a pair of crows and a pair of ravens having an aerial argument. Surprisingly the smaller crows seemed to be getting the upper hand. I guess with spring coming they were being territorial.
    The ravens like to sit at the very top of a tree to have a good view of the surrounding area.

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    1. You have at least one Rook in Ontario..... me!

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  21. Great post, John. And the photos are spectacular!

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  22. I know many people dislike them but I'm a big fan of corvids! Just before I read this post, I was distracted by a large group of the local Jackdaws outside the window, flying high! Interesting post to read.

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