Most evenings since we moved to Sevenoaks l listen for the town’s jackdaws on their daily commute. Presumably they forage for scraps amongst hilltop town centre streets by day, before returning to a night-time resting place in the Darent valley to the north. Just after sunset they fling themselves down the hill, riding the cooling, descending air against a red evening sky and the shadow of the North Downs. It’s then that I see them – I usually hear them first – for their flight path takes them directly over our flat.
When we first arrived here early in the spring, something like 100 would pass overhead every day. As the breeding season wore on, numbers reduced – both jackdaws and rooks tend to form large roosts in the winter, then breed in somewhat smaller, looser colonies – but night flights have continued nonetheless right through the summer. I’ve always meant, one evening, to station myself in the valley and try to locate the roost. I doubt that I ever will: so much for the spirit of discovery. In a way, though, I enjoy the mystery, and the game of filling in the gaps, imagining what this band of small crows does with the 23 hours and 55 minutes of each day during which I’m not observing them.
Yesterday the evening was particularly muggy, and an advance party arrived early, the sun low but not yet vanished behind the Downs. They slowed as they approached the peak of a tall Georgian mansion on our street. A smokestack of around twenty slender black corvids bloomed upwards from the chimney tops, twisted once or twice around and then collapsed onto the roof slates. More stragglers joined them, and with each new arrival the pattern repeated, a blizzard of black feather and bone pulsating as if driven by a giant bellows.
This went on for a few minutes, before the flock fell silent, as swiftly as it had first arrived. I didn’t see their next move: they just melted into the suburban scenery with unusual stealth. Twenty minutes later the air had finally cooled off and the main wave came through as usual, not stopping as the others had, but this time it was the biggest evening movement in weeks. Sixty or so graceful jackdaws almost back to their full winter-roost strength. Before their numbers peak I too will be gone, off down the hill to whatever roost we end up alighting at next. It seems that to work in bird conservation, one must submit to being as free to fly as the birds themselves.