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Notes From A Free Walker Baggy trousers, baggy trousers

DAVE BANGS catches up with some loveable feathered friends

OUR mates the rooks. Black and big. Baggy trousers with tatty cuffs. Big stomach hanging down. Jerky uncool walk. Bit-too-big coat. Big black quiff. Giant conk like a warrior’s weapon. Flashing iridescent blues and purples. Always in a gang. Always noisy.  KAAAA KAAAAH KAAAAH KAAAH.

Boisterous, super-social, messy, warm, domestic…LOVEABLE.

If it’s a big black bird here’s how you roughly tell a rook from a crow. If it’s on its own it’s maybe a crow. If it’s in a crowd it’s probably a rook. If it’s all black it’s probably a crow (except in Scotland and Ireland). If it’s black with part-white beak and cheeks it’s a rook. 

Rook music is like the smell of cow shit. It should be awful, but it’s sweet and lovely. (Discuss). 

It is the sound of the old countryside. Before industrial capitalist farming’s ecocide. It’s with us all the year, not just in spring, unlike our bird music from summer visiting nightingales and warblers.

Their springtime rookeries (communal nesting sites) are at their noisiest and liveliest right now. Stand close to one and you’ll see why the crowded slums of the first 150 years of capitalism were called “rookeries.”

If you search the woodland floor below a rookery you can find their beautiful discarded eggshells, bluey-green and freckled heavily with olive, buff, grey and browny-green. You may, too, find a fledgling that has fallen from their nest. The last time it happened I crouched down to it, and it opened its beak to reveal its brilliant red gape. It nearly worked on me, and I was sorely tempted to “rescue” the bird. (Don’t do that. It may be being fed by its parents). 

In my reactionary youth I always thought that the cawing of rooks was the most English of music. It’s not. It’s truly international. From the steppes of Russia to Iran, Mongolia and Manchuria, the herders are graced by rook music.

They are a bird adapted (perhaps less than 10 million years ago) to vast grasslands with clusters of trees, such as the rolling pastures of Mongolia, with their river woodlands of birch, poplar and willow. Perhaps that is where they first evolved. 

They are still a more Asian than European bird. 

Indeed, they occur only in the middling latitudes of Europe, for the forests of Scandinavia and the hot, dry lands of the Mediterranean do not favour them. They cannot forage in northern forests or the sun-baked grounds of the south. They need soft grasslands, with earthworms and insect grubs near the surface for them to find by dib, dib, dibbing their dagger-like, specially adapted beaks. 

Their white scaly cheeks and hairless beaks are an adaptation to prevent the caking of facial feathers in their earthy probing, stabbing foraging.

There is, however, some logic to my youthful ascription of Englishness to rooks, for they came westward, probably alongside the neolithic first farmers and forest clearers from western Asia, with the westward spread of stock grazing and cereal growing. England lost its wildwood cover very thoroughly in those first farming millennia, and by the Roman period it wasn’t much more wooded than now. Rooks never much colonised still heavily forested Germany and its forested neighbour countries. 

Britain and Ireland have 40 per cent of the entire rook population in Europe. Only Belarus currently boasts a population of comparable size. 

I quote those facts from my reading of Mark Cocker’s superb book “Crow Country.” It inspired me six years ago to a springtime of furious exploration of my local rookeries within about 30 minutes drive from home. 

These rookeries aren’t found in large woods, but in knots and groves of trees among the pastures, and even in large gardens and parks, for they are a bird which can put up with the close company of people.

We looked at some 70 rookeries and counted nests in 65. The biggest rookery had nearly 400 nests and the smallest had just two. Two thirds of the rookeries had more than 20 nests. 

One of the first things I noted is that rookeries tend to occur in chains, with roughly equal distances between. These chains tend to cluster along the edges of river valleys and flood plains. That’s because those flood plains are redoubts of permanent pasture.

Mark Cocker’s Norfolk Broadland countryside of the Yare Valley holds the biggest surviving patch of lowland grassland in England. Only Aberdeenshire has a greater density of rooks — indeed it has the world’s highest known densities.

Rooks feed on grain as well worms, so arable landscapes can suit them, but they don’t occur in the densities that they do on the floodplains, and they tend to make their rookeries on the edge of such areas.

Rooks really don’t seem to be bothered by the roaring madness of main roads or the traffic on busy lanes. I don’t understand why they aren’t put off by the prospect of their fledglings flopping onto the road when they first leave their nests. It must surely happen — for that’s where many thriving rookeries can be found. 

Surely the countless generations of rooks nesting about villages and hamlets, farms, rectories and pubs, and the lads with stones, catapults and airguns, and a penchant for clambering up to swaying branches to steal their eggs … or the farmers and gamekeepers blasting shotguns up through the branches to kill the fledglings would have taught the bright clans of the tree tops to keep to the remotest wildernesses? … as ravens learnt to do. 

It appears not. Rooks seem to be quite capable of hearing each other croak and getting on with their lives above human clamour and traffic noise.

Rooks spend a lot of time foraging companionably with jackdaws. In winter they roost with jackdaws. You can watch families of jackdaws at their nesting holes in the trunks of mature groves, while above them families of rooks nest in the canopy. I cherish a single giant ancient pollard oak which plays host to several jackdaw families in holes in its trunk and branches, whilst 12 rook families nest in its crown. A corvid tenement.

Occasionally rooks can nest with herons too. When I did my first count of nests at Badgerhole Shaw, I noticed first one, then two, then at least five grey herons standing in a group in a field nearby. Only later did I realise that some of the nests I had counted above me were herons’ nests, not rooks’ … and that they had little egrets nesting with them, too. Rooks aren’t speciesist.

In winter rooks abandon their rookeries and roost in much larger numbers in the middle of larger woods. Their bedtime roosting rituals are ceremonial, theatrical and stirring.

As the day’s light dwindles and pink and purple flares above Chanctonbury they gather in their parties from all compass points. They fly in low. At tree-top height. They beat up from the south in silhouette against the sky. They beat along the western valley, speeding black shapes near-invisible against the darkening brown earth. They tip up and over the northern hilltop into the light towards us, like soldiers breaking from trenches into the attack.

And they gather near us in the canopies of field oaks, crowding like black orchard apples.

Silent. There they stay. Not moving. Silent for long minutes. Then, just as our attention wanders and we wonder whether to shift our position, they’re in the air … rising in clouds, roaring their clan song, roaring into the air, eastwards and downwards, cloud-amoeba-like towards the river valley slope, down into its dense thickets of thorn, ash and oak. 

And they’re noisily gone. They’re gone from sight, if not from sound. But rook bedtime ain’t that simple. 

We wait … and they’re up again, like black steam shooting vertically upwards KAW KAW KAW … up and around … then down again back into the covers.

Then up again … and around … and down.

As time passes the sound slowly dies. Finally they’re quiet.  

The darkness is near-complete now, as we shift into walking mode back down the lane.

If we’re lucky the tawny owl will hoot its call. One last winter gift. 

Notes from a Free Walker is a monthly column, and appears on the second weekend of the month. Keep an eye out for the next one on May 11.

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