The secret life of rooks

03rd February 2018

From their cawing cries to their twig-etched nests, rooks are an essential part of the winter landscape. Simon Barnes pays homage to these deeply social, most misunderstood of birds

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We always have affection for birds determined to hurry on the spring. Rooks do this in a gloriously dramatic way

Rooks are many. That is the core – note this happy choice of words – of their strategy for survival. A rook’s deepest desire is to be a flock: to be one of 100 or 200 birds caw-cawing to each other as they darken the skies with flying displays that celebrate all the glories of being many.

There are three rookeries on the Goodwood Estate: one at Seeley Copse, one at Halnaker Park and one – of course – at Rookwood. All these sites are ancient woodland and Rookwood’s presence on a map of 1629 seems to imply a continuous presence of rooks for at least four centuries.

There is a knack to watching a flock of rooks. At first they seem an anarchic mass, each bird chaotically pursuing its own ends in a mad flurry of noise and activity. But watch more closely: pick out one bird from the flock and follow its movements and you realise that everything it does is associated with one other bird in the flock. Rooks are intensely social, but within that social structure they are tightly paired: mate-for-lifers whose priority is the flock of two that lies within the flock of many.

The flocks make their nests together, not in vast cities like seabirds, but in companionable treetop villages. At dusk you can hear them talking to each other – it’s been claimed they have 30 separate vocalisations – with a pleasing busyness. These are birds with a settled place in the world and a clear sense of their shared identity. In other words, we see something of ourselves in rooks.

The first thing to understand about rooks is that they’re not crows: the two species are much confused, in the past and right now. Carrion crows operate in highly mobile pairs rather than flocks. There are many versions of the saying that celebrates their differences: “Whan thass a rook thass a crow, and whan thass crows thass rooks.”

Both species caw, but they caw differently: the crow’s caw is harsh and shouty and sounds like a swearword – generally one repeated three times. The rook’s caw is more mellow, more suited to life with multiple neighbours. They look noticeably different too: crows are sleek and completely black, with a shiny black beak: rooks have a beak the colour of an old bone and it seems to take up most of their face. They are less dapper than crows, with baggy feathers and what looks like a pair of short trousers.

Rooks are essentially birds of the humanised landscape: birds of farmland. You don’t see them much in open country or in towns: but where there are fields and hedges you tend to find rooks. It follows that we have ambiguous feeling towards them. They are soothing, homely birds that are also seen as pests. At Goodwood the rooks feed copiously around the organically farmed crops, taking invertebrates from the cultivated soils, many of which are damaging to growing plants. But being omnivorous and versatile beasts, they switch to the corn itself as it ripens, and farmers find that less sympathetic. Bird-scaring is an ancient part of our culture: the scarecrow was invented not to scare carrion crows in ones and twos, but to frighten off rooks in their marauding flocks.

Yet at the same time, there is something benign about the presence of rooks. We always have an affection for birds that seem to defy the winter, birds that seem determined to hurry on the spring as fast as they can. And rooks do this in a gloriously dramatic way. Even while the branches are still bare, they’re are hard at it, building or repairing nests, sometimes filching twigs from each other – one rook rooking another rook – and generally getting their eggs laid by the end of February, in what seems an astonishing act of courage and faith.

The frost may have hardened the ground, but as you walk beneath the great trees of a rookery – elm trees, traditionally, but alas all gone now – you hear the rooks getting on with the bustling and joyous business of making more rooks, and it’s an unlucky person who fails to rejoice in such circumstances.
Ugly birds, some say, when they’re seen plain with that great beak sticking out, reminding us perhaps of our ancient fears of overwhelming nature, a terror caught for all time by the Alfred Hitchcock film The Birds. But then you see a rook – or many rooks – caught in a shaft of sunlight, and the birds are lit up with iridescence, assuming a royal purple.

And then they’re off, flying to a place that might be 20 miles away – as the crow flies, and in this phrase, crow once again means rook. The air is full of their soft cawing as they travel in pairs and as many towards their distant rookery.

Simon Barnes’s book, The Meaning of Birds, is on sale now, published by Head of Zeus

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Winter 2018 issue

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