Rook (Corvus frugilegus)
Rooks are birds that are often associated with sadness and the forewarning of doom. The Revd Boswell Smith wrote in around 1905: “Verily, the Rook sees far more than we give him credit for seeing, hears more than we think he hears, thinks more than we think that he hears. Last year the Rooks in the rookery of the Grange, Lord Ashburton’s house near Alresford, Hampshire, left, in a body, their nests and nestlings, and have not since returned. The villagers predicted disaster to the family or neighbourhood, and disaster promptly came.”
The house remains empty to this day.
It is common knowledge among country folk that rooks hold a “parliament” on occasions to judge the transgressions of one of their own, although only a few people have ever witnessed these proceedings. The birds form a circle around the one or two miscreants and do not allow them to leave while the judging takes place. Occasionally the court will finish with all the birds suddenly departing, but sometimes the verdict is guilty and the poor bird in the middle is pecked and jabbed to death with no mercy shown at all.
Rooks are very sociable, living together throughout the year, in fact during the winter months as the days draw to a close, huge numbers of birds gather together from a wide area and get ready to fly off to the roosting wood. Before the final flight takes place in near darkness, up to 40,000 individuals can gather together on the ground in a selected field, and sit there for a short while in complete silence. The silence is abruptly broken by an unseen message and the enormous flock will suddenly rise into the air as one, cawing and shrieking to each other in a frenzy of noise and excitement, as they head off into the heart of a nearby wood to spend the night. This intriguing behaviour may be a strategy to avoid predators by becoming a mass of twisting, noisy black shapes in the fading light that would, I imagine, confuse any hunter.
Gilbert White of Selborne was a fan of the sound of rooks, writing “a pleasing murmur, very engaging to the imagination and not unlike the cry of a pack of hounds in hollow, echoing woods, or the rushing of wind in tall trees, or the tumbling of the tide upon a pebbly shore”. The noise of rooks, whether in the rookery or in the gloom of a winter’s evening, is quintessentially a sound of our countryside and although it may go largely unnoticed by many people as just background din, I think we would sorely miss it if it were ever lost.