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Part 20 - The Rook

Rook - Corvus frugilegus

Rooks are never easy to overlook but make their presence most obvious in early spring as they are among the first birds to start nesting and, unlike solitary nesters, they do so very noisily. Not being a proper birder (maybe I’ll improve when I retire next year and have more time!) I’ve never actually counted the nests in the colony by St Pancras church but my impression is that the numbers there are fairly constant, with perhaps 20-30 pairs. Some rookeries (a word which was once applied to a group of crowded slums and also, more understandably, to “disturbances”) can, in contrast, hold several hundred birds and there is a record of one in Northumberland with 557 pairs! One can only hope that nearby residents have triple glazing. Out of the breeding season, rooks continue to be sociable, both feeding and roosting in groups and often associating with other members of the crow family, especially jackdaws. The British rook population overall is a very healthy one with around 850,000 pairs. Remarkably, these constitute almost 40% of the entire European population.

Rooks are primarily birds of mixed farmland. Their diet includes some cereal grains but consists largely of a wide range of invertebrate food such as earthworms and includes many insects regarded by farmers as pests, such as leatherjackets, the larval form of the cranefly. Despite this, so-called “scarecrows” are there to deter rooks rather than carrion crows.

In legend, rooks generally have rather negative associations but W H Hudson, a famous naturalist of the late Victorian era, held them in very high regard. This species, he wrote (in the Birds of London, 1898) “is more to us than any other wild bird, on account of its large size….its high intelligence, and the confidence it reposes in man”. It had, also “versatility and playfulness, and that tricksy spirit found in most of the corvines (sic) which so curiously resembles…the sense of humour in ourselves”. Hudson lamented the loss of major rookeries in Greenwich Park and Kensington Gardens by what he saw as “the unspeakable barbarity” of the park authorities in topping (and in some cases completing removing) the trees where rooks nested. As a result, the prospects of the rook in central London he saw as “well nigh hopeless”. I must find out whether his gloom was borne out by subsequent events but Richard Fitter reported in Nature in London (1946) that rooks had then last nested in inner London in 1916. It may be that the city had just become too large and central London was therefore too far from the rooks’ foraging areas.

I welcome the very occasional appearance of rooks in my garden. They descend in numbers to take bread and cheese, dwarfing the jackdaws which sometimes accompany them but not appearing to chase them off.

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