Rooks are fascinating creatures, often called the country cousin of the crow, this is a bird inextricably linked with rural Britain. This is the most sociable of all crows, though Choughs and Ravens will form groups and roosts out of the breeding season they cannot rival the great and noisome rookeries or huge feeding flocks of this species. Often confused with the all-black carrion crow the rook is quite different when seen up close; its bill is pale and dagger-shaped with exposed grey skin at the base (an adaptation to its feeding style to prevent muddy feathers). The head is angular and has a purple sheen while the feathers around the legs are long and loose giving a scruffy appearance. Rooks on the ground move distinctly in an upright plodding gait, in the air however they (as all Corvids) are true masters, often playing and twisting in strong winds – in normal flight their long primaries and floppy (like a rag I think) flying style give them away.
The Latin name Corvus frugilegus translates as ‘food-gatherer’, bit odd as all birds gather food and Jays are better known for food-caching, but could reference the Rooks liking for spilt grain. The Rook is a species spread across Eurasia and can be found in most habitats as long as there are trees for nesting, in Britain there are estimated to be some 1.1 million pairs (exempt only from the treeless highlands).
Rooks start nesting very early in the year, bringing a hint of spring to the grey cold of February – one pair will re-use the same nest for years, repairing when necessary. Rooks can be found at their nests throughout the year, even on mild, sunny days in winter – though they are not tied to the nest site. Rookeries are marvelous things to watch on a spring day, some are formed from only 2 or 3 nests but there have been colonies recorded of many thousands of individual nests.
Being such social birds they have been given more than just the word ‘rookery’ to describe a gathering of these handsome Corvids; ‘building’, ‘parliament’, ‘clamour’ and my favourite – a ‘storytelling’ of Rooks are also used. Folklore says that Rooks escort souls to heaven, that they abandon rookeries if a member of the family who own the land they are nesting on dies, also that they poo on people who aren’t wearing new clothes on Easter Sunday! It is strange that despite nearly all crow species being traditionally associated with evil, death and bad luck the Rook is seen largely in a positive light. Rooks were also regularly used to foretell the weather (and is probably still more reliable than forecasters today) e.g. if Rooks stayed on or close to their nests all day then rain was sure to follow, but if they flew far away to feed then it would be fine.
Rooks mostly eat worms, grain and insect larvae (such as leatherjackets), probing the soil of fields to reach their prey (hence the bare skin around the bill) but as opportunists will eat pretty much any nut/fruit/carrion/eggs/chicks/rodents etc. Rookeries were regularly culled in the past because of their fondness for crop seeds, and still are in some places, though they do much more good than harm for farmers.Rooks are very intelligent birds; in captivity they have proven to be problem-solvers and efficient tool-users, fashioning food-grabbing implements from sticks and wire or using stones to raise the water in a glass and get to a floating grub.
I think Rooks are a valuable and attractive addition to our countryside, their colonies are landmarks for miles around and a delight to study when in full breeding throng. They are a bird that marks the seasons with their behaviour, they are such a staple component of rural England that it is very nearly impossible to imagine it without them.
(painting by Alexei Savrasov)