A wild flight of rooks, winging surely in jagged lines across pale skies, is one of the chief pleasures of the winter countryside. They are with us all year, of course, with their ever faithful attendants the jackdaws. Not so obviously attractive as their smaller cousin – primitive bare skin and fearsome pick axe beak not helping – but they are striking in the right light. I’ve seen rooks’ plumage transformed into sheets of blue metal and gold by the sun. They’re engagingly intelligent too, their beady knowing eyes seeking out food solutions as ably as any engineer. Witness the pair which once stole our entire peanut feeder and dropped it from a height on the road to break out the nuts. Often, though, when they are merely crows off in a field, or passing overhead, rooks pass out of my mind. Just another crow – now, where’s that blackcap singing from?
But when the tide of summer colour subsides, taking with it a raft of songsters, and what birds remain or return for mild shelter here are clumped together in flocks for safety and foraging, that’s when I really notice rooks, great crowds of them. That deep, guttural cry, given with great effort – observe one croaking from a tree top or in flight, the bird’s head, neck and chest straining with each note – invades the winter silence, as though the bare stony fields below are themselves stirring. And at once you can see that rooks, on the face of it a simple, large, black versatile bird, are, to use Mark Cocker’s delightful phrase, ‘enveloped in a glorious sky-cloak of mystery’.
When I decided to focus on rooks for a ‘species of the week’ I re-read his 2007 book ‘Crow Country’, which relates a passion for the rooks of the Yare Valley, a sea of flat low-lying Norfolk grassland and a veritable rook paradise. I began to worry that I would simply regurgitate Cocker’s ideas and observations, which are after all compelling and beautifully written – but I noted that at the heart of his book is a quest for meaning. Not only the where, what and why of a winter roost, but a need to understand his own obsession – his journey which, he writes, was ‘in truth, everything’. I find that the very best natural history writing similarly reflects something of the authors themselves – no mere dispassionate study but an intimate engagement with wildlife, body and soul. If I wanted to make my own way in the rook world and contribute something worthwhile, to find my own journey, I was going to need to make things personal by finding out two things: what does the sight and sound of a rook mean to me, and what do I notice about them? In other words, some pleasant day-dreaming, and a spot of birding – activities which through regular practice ought to pose no difficulty for me!
Luckily I’ve always been fond of corvids, especially since meeting my wife for whom they are favourites. And the call of the rook is not just evocative of a generic time and place, somewhere in the rolling open countryside of Britain, but holds specific memories. When I hear that strong harsh voice I am transported to Easter mornings at St John’s Church in North Baddesley, where a rookery sits close by as if constructed as a guard tower. Black-cloaked sentinels protecting a holy place against mischievous goings-on in the partial light of dawn, even though I know that the sentry bird of the flock is probably no more than rural myth. They rake the air with cries of greeting as scripture is read by the vicar, as Gothically black-cloaked and wrapped up in legend as the rooks, visible only by flickering bonfire flames and, less romantically, a circle of mobile phone torches.
My second stroke of luck is that I basically live in the middle of a rookery. North Waltham Rectory is sheltered front and back by tall limes which hold perhaps 20 or more rook nests each year. During my spring of rising before dawn, they were often the only birds stirring, muttering to each other dozily quite the oddest assortment of clucks, clicks, half croaks and sighs. Rooks are intelligent birds and rookeries are their communities, mirroring the human habitations they are often close to, taking advantage of tree islands near houses as safe refuges to nest, rest and play.
One thing I was reminded of in ‘Crow Country’ was that they will hold fast to the rookery year round, but only spend the night during the breeding season. Once this is complete, they gather in greater numbers at winter roosts. As far as I know nothing locally can match the astonishing gatherings of 20-40,000 rooks and jackdaws at Buckingham Carrs in Norfolk. But wherever there are rooks – and most of us will live near to some – there will be a roost pulling in birds from quite a distance around. From there they will often visit their rookeries after the roost breaks up in the morning, before returning at night, and to rest between feeding trips during the day.
I set out to do nothing more complex than to observe at what times our local rookery is occupied, to see how well that fits here in Hampshire. To find patterns in their behaviour which might reveal something about their local ecology or the particular set-up of local landscapes. And hopefully by observing the direction of their flight in the morning or afternoon, to locate a local roost and sit back to enjoy the magic so vividly described in Cocker’s book. I already had a clue, from having on one occasion in October seen a vast flock nearly 1000 strong wheeling near to our local train station. It’s quite a sight: not quite as tightly co-ordinated as starlings’ famed performances but nearly as exhilarating, and somehow made even more wild by the wall of noise and being able to pick out individual birds, twisted and buffeted in flight. My hunch was that the main winter roost for our district would be in a nearby block of woodland.
Unfortunately when I set out one afternoon last week, the trees outside had already emptied. I had too long lingered indoors, and now surely the birds were already halfway to Overton. Walking out into the village, my fears were confirmed by the absence of any corvids at all. I walked down the lane anyway, enjoying nightfall and hoping for consolation in the form of a barn owl or fox. Then through a gap in the hedge I heard, half imagined perhaps, a clamour of croaks and jacks – of gathering corvids. But no, there it was, unmistakeable on the horizon as a smoke-like whorl of birds, expanding and contracting round a stand of trees, dipping down and then rising from the fields – driven as if by some unseen power. This was an unexpected piece of the puzzle, a roost at least 300 birds strong three miles from where I expected to find one, but alas, still a good distance from my poor vantage point. I did what any self-respecting, sensible natural historian would do: took hold of my binoculars, and started to run.