At this time of the year I drive my family mad. Short journeys take twice as long and I am continuously stopping then car and peeking over a hedgerow or walking through the grounds of some ancient church. The object of what my kids call my obsession are Rooks.
At this time of the year their bulky nests stand out against bare branches and I have been counting them for years. I have records for some Rookeries going back to 2001 and while I hated maths at school I love sitting down to chart the fortunes of the Rooks from year to year.
Rooks, or more commonly called Crows, are big black birds with a large pale beak. They are very social and form huge flocks during the winter that can number thousands of birds. This large community gathers together each night and information is exchanged on the best places to find food. By pooling their knowledge of the landscape each bird has a better chance of surviving the winter.
Come spring they build their distinctive nests in trees. I have noticed that the choice off location is quite varied. Roadside and field hedgerows, parks and graveyards are all utilized. Some build at the tops of 100 foot trees while others you can bend down the branch and look into the nest.
A Rookery I regularly visit has nests in trees, not more than 6 feet off the ground. They are also packed together causing many arguments between strained neighbours. The cows in the field can peer into the Rooks homes but this doesn’t seem to bother the birds. This is strange as there are tall Beech trees nearby with plenty of space but the birds tend to avoid them.
Rookeries are often abandoned after a number of years and it is eerie to visit these once active and noisy places are hear nothing but the sound of passing traffic. This decline can take place over a number of years as the number of productive nests dwindles to a silent spring. Sometimes they move a few hundred meters up the road to a new location and others their whereabouts remains an unsolved mystery. I have also found Rooks who have shunned the communal group and are nesting on their own. These singletons can be like a natural magnet and draw more birds to their location in the following years.
Rooks also seem to be able sense the health of a tree. A few years ago the Rooks in a nearby village stopped using trees where they had nested for generations. That winter, high winds toppled these giants and perhaps the Rooks knew that their ancient home had become unsafe. Choice of tree also varies. Ash, Oak, Birch, Conifers, Horsechestnut, Alder and many more specie are used. Unfortunately some Rookeries are cut down and this is often done while the birds are nesting. Rooks are useful birds on farmland as they eat tonnes of soils pests that would attack the famer’s crop.
There is a rich folklore around Rooks. One is that they never pick up a stick once it drops to the ground. I have often seen them discard a sticks that does not fit their exacting standards when constructing their nests.
A few years ago a new development was constructed on the site of a large Rookery. The trees were felled and one old gentlemen who have lived beside the Rooks for years missed their company and noise. But the birds must have liked his company as well for they moved into a tall field hedgerow at the back of his house and the new shed roofs made perfect spots for basking in the morning sun.
If you have a Rookery near house or one that you pass on a regularly you might let me know its location. Or bring a pen a paper and count the number of nests. This might become a lifelong passion and on your journeys throughout the countryside you will find yourself watching for Rookeries around every corner.
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