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Shoot the rook, pay the price

Outdoor Living

PATROLLING PASTURELAND Rooks feed on maggot-like leatherbacks, which spend their lives chewing through grass roots and depriving livestock of quality feed.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

A few quiet moments were spent beneath the tall limes that form an avenue up to the big house. In the sunlit shelter they offer, early daffodils appear ready to bloom, primrose plants sport new, deeply furrowed leaves, and that twist of honeysuckle is bright with fresh foliage. Better, rooks are overhead.
Some inspect their nests. Winter leaves that settled within are thrown out, to fall softly to the ground. Sticks are scrutinised closely, rearranged, pulled and discarded, or even allowed to remain as they are. And now and again the rasping calls of the birds soften, thin sunlight offers brief warmth and spring is in the air, even for a moment.
Winter has been kind to the rooks. The ground has remained soft enough for their bills to probe for leatherjackets, the larvae of the crane fly, which do more damage to pasture than any other pest. These ugly, grey, maggot-like creatures spend their lives chewing through grass roots and depriving livestock of quality feed.
The same farmer that shoots at the rook to drive him away examines his fields with concern, and wonders why his crop fails. He throws expensive fertiliser on land already saturated with nutrients; rain washes it into drains and from there into streams, rivers, lakes, where algae chokes and weeds proliferate, where water quality declines and where fish no longer thrive.
Better leave the rook alone to do his work.
We watched them a while. Some continued at their nests while others went striding about the field, examining the ground closely and pausing here and there to drive their heavy bills into the earth. We counted, and made the flock close to forty. Forty rooks will eat a lot of grubs.
Do they cause any harm? That depends.
A newly turned piece of ground attracts rooks. Perhaps they come in innocence, to find worms and other invertebrates, yet soon discover a seed potato or two. These they peck at, as if unsure of their desirability. The potato is almost, yet not quite, edible. Perhaps the next one will be marginally better? It is dug out and sampled, turned over, tasted, and badly damaged. Are there more?
There are indeed, and more rooks arrive, eager to join the game. In short order an entire row of newly planted tubers have been excavated, each given a few exploratory pecks, and discarded. The landowner arrives with his gun. One, perhaps two birds pay the ultimate price. The flock departs and leatherjackets grow fat on a diet of grass roots in the adjoining pasture.
The dead rooks are strung along barbed wire or hung from the branches of a tree to serve as a warning to those that escaped with their lives. Does this work? Indeed it does. Rooks and crows are intelligent birds – as far as birds go, that is. We can walk in among the rookery trees with the rooks quite happy at their nests far above our heads, but if we carry a stick or anything looking remotely like a gun, the flock flees before us with panicky cries and is reluctant to return until near dark.
So, too, these birds seem to perceive the fate of their dead friends and tend to stay clear of where their corpses are displayed. James recognises the value of a rookery and is loathe to shoot even one of its inhabitants, yet most certainly wants to keep them from his garden.
Scraps of black plastic decorate the wire fence that sections off his corner of the field. The faintest breeze gives life to these, but unnatural life that rooks and crows alike avoid, as if those black flags were in fact their brethren. And so his potatoes remain in their beds, undisturbed, while the rooks that visit his fields somehow know he means them no harm.
I never knew a rook to take carrion in the manner of other members of the crow family, nor to pick the eyes and tongue from living sheep, as the hooded crow, or greyback, and the raven undoubtedly will. So how can we tell the difference?
Ask James: ‘One rook by himself is a crow, and many crows together are rooks.’
I know what he means. Rooks are gregarious birds, while other crows are solitary. If you have the blessing of a rookery close to hand, get to know the occupants a little better. They will not disappoint.