ROOK (Corvus frugilegus)
Although one of our most familiar birds, the rook is often confused with its cousin the carrion crow (C. corone), also black and of similar size. A closer look reveals differences in appearance: the mature rook has a whitish facial patch of bare skin, and its leg feathers give it the look of wearing breeches. However, the main distinguishing feature is, of course, the rook’s sociable nature, compared with the crow’s more solitary life. Rooks are birds of a fairly open landscape, in mixed farming country, with small woods and scattered trees.
Nest-building begins early, perhaps in February. The rookery is easily located, not only because of the large nests on bare branches, but from the very noisy cawing. The preferred tree in England used to be the elm, but since elm disease, a wide variety of trees are chosen. Rookeries here are normally of no more than about 40 nests, but further north vast rookeries of literally thousands of nests are found. The same site may be used over many years.
Rooks are omnivorous and opportunist. In the breeding season they feed mainly on invertebrates such as grubs, beetles and worms, but at all times they scavenge widely on rubbish dumps, on picnic sites, and on road verges seeking road-kill. It is however as feeders on grain crops that they are regarded as pests and therefore they have always been persecuted. In the past, bounties have been placed on their heads and a variety of bird-scaring methods have been employed, from scarecrows (shouldn’t that be scare-rooks?) to young children paid a pitiful wage to throw stones and shoo them away*, to the present-day gas guns.
The flight of the rook is faster and more direct than that of the crow. Sometimes, especially in windy weather, flocks will fly up in a loose spiral. The reason for this is not clear, but it is thought that the higher they fly, the better the weather prospect. In winter, after feeding on the fields during the day, the rooks will fly off to a favourite wood, often many miles away, to a large communal roost.
*In this extract from Thomas Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure”, the kind-hearted young Jude encourages the rooks to eat the grain rather than shooing them away:
The boy stood under the rick before mentioned, and every few seconds used his clacker or rattle briskly. At each clack the rooks left off pecking, and rose and went away on their leisurely wings, burnished like tassets of mail, afterwards wheeling back and regarding him warily, and descending to feed at a more respectful distance.
He sounded the clacker till his arm ached, and at length his heart grew sympathetic to the birds’ thwarted desires. They seemed, like himself, to be living in a world that did not want them. Why should he frighten them away? They took upon them more and more the aspect of friends and gentle pensioners – the only friends he could claim as being in the least degree interested in him, for his aunt had often told him that she was not. He ceased his rattling and they alighted anew.
‘Poor little dears!’ said Jude, aloud. ‘You shall have some dinner – you shall. There is enough for us all. Farmer Troutham can afford to let you have some. Eat, then, my dear little birdies, and make a good meal!’
They stayed and ate, inky spots on the nut-brown soil, and Jude enjoyed their appetite. A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and as sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.
His clacker he had by this time thrown away from him, as being a mean and sordid instrument, offensive both to the birds and to himself as their friend. All at once he became conscious of a smart blow upon his buttocks, followed by a loud clack, which announced to his surprised senses that the clacker had been the instrument of offence used. The birds and Jude started up simultaneously, and the dazed eyes of the latter beheld the farmer in person, the great Troutham himself, his red face glaring down upon Jude’s cowering frame, the clacker swinging in his hand.
‘So it’s ‘Eat, my dear birdies,’ is it, young man? ‘Eat dear birdies’ indeed! I’ll tickle your breeches if you say, ‘Eat dear birdies’ again in a hurry! And you’ve been idling at the schoolmaster’s too, instead of coming here, ha’n’t ye hey? That’s how you earn your sixpence a day for keeping the rooks off my corn!’
Photo: John Sheppard.