Rooks

In these times of restricted travel, our Head of Public Engagement, Matthew Capper, writes about the the benefits of spending time studying a single species, close to home.

Before I moved to my current house about seven years ago, I never really paid much attention to rooks. Certainly, no more than many other species that I encountered on daily basis. And yet now, they are a constant in my life, leading the way with the changing seasons and punctuating at least a small part of every day.

The countryside around my home isn’t particularly biodiverse. But I’m luckier than most to have farmland next to the house and just a hundred yards of open ground between my garden chair and Plover Wood - a small copse of publicly owned land that has been home to generations of rooks.

Over the last six years I have come to appreciate rooks and have slowly grown to see them in a different light.

Rooks are one of the crow family and the most gregarious of the UK species, nesting communally in what are known as a rookeries. And at the moment, in these travel restricted times, I can happily spend a good chunk of my daily walk, just stood under the trees watching the lives of these birds unfold. Over the last six years I have come to appreciate rooks and have slowly grown to see them in a different light.

At first, all I saw were jet-black birds. But closer inspection, especially in good light, revealed a deep purple sheen from top of the head to tip of the tail. I’d watch them probing the grass in the field, each bird evenly spaced apart, and began to understand the small greyish white bald patch around the base of the beak. The long dagger shaped bill was perfect for digging for leatherjackets and other soil invertebrates. By doing away with feathers, the rook could keep its face much cleaner and probe that bit deeper.

Rook (c) Tim Melling

Rook (c) Tim Melling

I’ve discovered my rooks are different.

Every winter in the evening, they gather with jackdaws in the fields around the house in loose formations, arriving from various points where they have been feeding during the day. If I can, this is the point where I will head to the back garden, sit and quietly watch. Gradually, they shift to the wood, until there are at least a few hundred, lining the tree tops and swirling in the sky, the noise steadily building as they wheel and tumble.

I did some reading and learnt that in winter, rooks will gather at the site of the breeding rookery before departing to the place where they will spend the night. I’ve discovered my rooks are different. For some reason choose to roost at the same place. Why? I don’t know. However, some instinct still tells them to fly from ‘one’ to the ‘other’. This is one of my favourite parts of the nightly spectacle.

Just as it gets dark and the birds have become no more than silhouettes, the noise stops abruptly. The birds land and, after a short pause, all take off in a long line, heading out across the fields. It is always in a north-westerly direction. I watch them until they disappear over the horizon. At first I’d turn and head back into the house, assuming it was all over. Until one evening, I lingered and suddenly, whoosh, back they all streamed. This time there is no messing. No wheeling or tumbling. With a single purpose they head straight for the trees and in to roost. They chatter and call, quieten, argue a bit more, and then gradually settle for the night.

Rook (c) Tim Melling

Rook (c) Tim Melling

I love the social structures and interactions of a rookery and now make visiting it a key part of my current daily routine.

In February, I know winter is coming to end as the nests are refurbished and the birds pair up again. I love the social structures and interactions of a rookery and now make visiting it a key part of my current daily routine. Of course, I already knew how they steal nesting material from each other and constantly seem to argue. But this past fortnight has opened further insights. I’m gradually tuning into the different sounds. When the rookery is calm, I’ve noticed how the calls are too, dropping a notch or two. The birds have a large repertoire and gurgle and rattle, often seeming to string whole sentences together. And just recently, I’ve noticed much softer calls, I assume, coinciding with there being chicks in the nests.

None of this would have been apparent to me a few years back and it has been a real bright spot in the current situation to be learning more about these birds and enjoying their company. So maybe, this is the time for you to give it a go? Find your own familiar species – the sparrows in the hedge, the frogs in the pond – and try looking at them in a different more immersive way. You never know what you will find out.