The chattering classes

Outdoor Living

SOCIABLE Rooks natter away to each other in lively rookeries. 

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

When I went out this morning it was to find a welcoming edge of green at the edge of the road, where before had been lifeless and brown.
So soon! A slip of sunlight broke through the overcast to light my path and show me new life: violets in various amethyst shades; pretty wood anemones like a scatter of pearls under ash and oak; the first primrose glowing under the hedgerow, all waiting to catch an admiring glance.
It is one of those mornings through which one could walk and not look back, so rich with promise is the world around. Yet I know the smatter of colour in March is only a foregleam of that to come, when the woods and fields will explode into life. Already buds are pushing forward with such variety of shade, form and fragrance that we shall not know where to look for a month. I don’t want to miss a moment.
I went as far as the rookery where I stopped to watch the antics of those black and raggy birds. Most of the nest-building work is complete, and many of the nests have eggs within. While the male rook gathered materials it was the female that did most of the construction work. She knows precisely where each stick must go and how the interior of the nest must be arranged.
For the most part she gets things right and her nest will hold together through the worst of spring storms. Some first-time nesters lose their work to the wind and must start again, which they do patiently and with care.
Many of the females are already incubating eggs. The male of each pair brings food, and when he isn’t doing that he brings more sticks for his wife to play with. Each of these is accepted graciously and talked about at length, as if it were the finest of all and ideally suited for the use to which it will be put. The male is perfectly chuffed, of course. He rises to the wind and lets it carry him in a tumble of black, to the pasture where he finds her food.
To us, one rook is the same as the next. To each other they are special. They form long-term pairs that endure many years and while both live there will be no other.
Occasional tragedy strikes. This day one female went to join her mate, leaving the nest unattended for a few short moments. No sooner had she cleared the trees than a band of jackdaws swooped in with what sounded like maniacal laughter and cleared her precious clutch of mottled eggs. The operation took just moments: the mother saw it happen and swept back to her branch, too late. The ’daws scattered, then gathered nearby to await another opportunity, leaving the poor rook silently bereft.
She will lay again, and this time take better care of her offspring.
A friend has a rookery at the front of his house. How fine it must be, I often thought, to have such a happy congregation as ones neighbours. “It would be,” he said, “if they woke up at ten and went to bed at eight.” But no, it seems that rooks like to make the most of their day, beginning their ceaseless cawing before dawn and not letting up until last thing at night.
“You hear them only from a distance,” he continued. “You should have try having them outside your bedroom window for a while. See how soothing they are then!”
Perhaps a summer filled with rooks would tip a person over the edge. That would explain the rook shoots that used to take place back in the UK. At fledging time the daylong chorus might be too much to handle. Each youngster – and there might be four or five to a nest and more than 50 nests in even a medium-sized rookery – is drawn as far from home as it dares to go, and there it sits on its twiggy perch, unable to fly or to find its way back, shouting incessantly for food and attention.
These ‘branchers’ make good eating. Rook pie was a seasonal favourite. I can’t say that I ever tried it, but then again I cannot say I never did. My grandparents would eat anything, or feed it to others at least.
Beneath the rookery, yellow celandines unfold their petals to catch the sun. What a day!