Crow Country: the path of the free

Crow Country: the path of the free

Rooks at Buckenham Carrs

Rooks at Buckenham Carrs (from East of Elveden blog)

Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth

At this time of year, as the afternoon light begins to fade, the open fields in Sefton Park gradually fill, first with a handful and then hundreds of rooks.  As the sun sets and the sky darkens, groups will rise and settle on the tops of nearby trees. This is a small-scale example of the phenomenon of the rooks’ night-time roost that Mark Cocker has spent the best part of the last decade observing, and which he writes about in his book I read recently, Crow Country: A Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature.

The goings-on in Sefton Park underline the fact that Crow Country is to be found just about everywhere in Britain.  But whereas the display in our local park is a pretty intimate affair, Cocker is drawn to the stadium performances in which this spectacle involves tens of thousands of birds.  He’s travelled Britain to the places where the most dramatic gatherings can be seen, though most of his observations have been made near his Norfolk home, where, at Buckenham Carrs in the Yare valley, he has seen as many as 40,000 rooks and jackdaws gather to roost.

For me, the most characteristic trait of rooks or crows (hard to tell apart, even for experienced birdwatchers) is their casual insouciance: approached by human or dog they will lift off lazily at the last minute and descend after a few desultory wing flaps a few yards further on, those always maintaining an alert and possibly amused watchfulness with those eyes like deep, dark pools.

But what has impelled Mark Cocker to pursue his obsession with rooks and to write about it with the same sort of passion that nurtured another Norfolk bird book, J A Baker’s ecstatic paean to The PeregrineThe answer for Cocker would seem to consist of several elements: one the one hand, he admires rooks as migrants, their behaviour embracing a spirit of freedom and community.  He quotes a passage from ‘I Love, I Love the Free’ (1840) by Eliza Cooke:

The caw of a rook on its homeward way,
Oh these shall be the music for me
For I love I love the path of the free.

At the same time, Cocker concludes that studying the life of another living creature in depth and with total engagement is ‘a way of being intensely alive, and recognising that you are so’.  Towards the end of his book, he writes:

It is a form of valuing life and of appreciating the fundamental tenet of all ecology: that every thing is connected to everything else.  So I would argue that rooking isn’t merely about a single raucous black bird.  It is about the whole world  – the landscape, the sunlight, the very oxygen we share – all that lies between myself and the bird.

Cocker’s style differs in certain respects from JA Baker’s: he is more of a scientist, more the expert and more  informative. Early in the book, Cocker notes that although crows are widespread they are mightily misunderstood, often to the extent of being confused with rooks and other corvids. He suggests that an easy way to distinguish crows from rooks at a distance is to count their numbers: a crow, he says, ‘passes its life as one of a pair isolated from neighbours by a fierce territoriality . . . Rooks, by contrast, live, feed, sleep, fly, display, roost, fall sick and die in the presence of their own kind’. Hence the old East Anglian adage ‘When tha’s a rook, tha’s a crow; and when tha’s crows, tha’s rooks’.

Despite its title, the book celebrates rooks in particular. His opening chapter is a rapturous account of how watching ‘a long ellipse’ of several thousand rooks and jackdaws head for their evening roost  fills him with ecstatic delight:

I am awaiting the arrival of night and all that it means in this landscape. Ahead of me lies a great unbound field of stubble sloping gently down towards the hamlet of Buckenham in the Yare valley. At the settlement’s southern margin is a tiny railway station, where I stepped down from a train more than thirty years ago on one of my earliest expeditions to this part of the Norfolk Broads. Beyond that steel line is the flat expanse of the Yare’s flood plain proper, and from my position on this upper northern slope I gain a sense of the entire valley, the whole flow of its contours, the way that the land dips down then rises again on the far shore like a shallow saucer, like a natural amphitheatre, fit for the spectacle about to unfold.

As day draws into its final hour, our own falling star has dwindled to a lens of brightness on the southern horizon resting in its own bed of lemon and rose light. I watch the clouds being pushed towards it by a biting northerly. They loom overhead like icebergs in an ocean of cold winter blue, and through this interplay of light and darkness arrive the birds I’ve come to watch.  A long ellipse of shapes, ragged and playful, strung out across the valley for perhaps half a kilometre, rides the uplift from the north wind directly towards my location. The birds, rooks and jackdaws heading to their evening roost, don’t materialise gradually – a vague blur slowly taking shape – they tunnel into view as if suddenly breaking through a membrane. One moment they aren’t visible. Then they are, and I track their course to the great skirt of stubble flowing down below me.

Along the margins of these fields stand rows of stately ivy-clad oaks, where the birds that have already arrived clothe the bare canopy, creating a heavy foliage of black. The whole effect of animal and vegetation reminds me momentarily of the great flat-topped acacias of the African savannah. In the failing light they are mere silhouettes and even the birds that have landed on the ground, wandering among the jagged stalks of stubble, create a simple, fretted chiaroscuro of pale and dark.

My attention cannot rest on the perched birds for long because I’m drawn back inexorably to the drama of the fresh arrivals. The long cylinder of birds, perhaps a thousand in total, has started to coil and circle the sky above the landing ground. They wind up into a single swirling vortex that breaks apart as small groups fling themselves to Earth. It is an extraordinary performance. I am so mesmerised by the flock’s sudden and convulsive disintegration that I fail to absorb the trajectory followed by any one individual. But all cease briefly to resemble birds. They become wind-blown rags or scraps of paper. The best I can think of is a moment I saw once in Jaipur, India. Above the city’s white-washed skyline floated a thousand small multi-coloured kites all at play in the hot desert gusts on that Rajasthani afternoon. The rooks and jackdaws acquired the same brief power of wild movement, straining against gravity and wind in equal measure.

Even this dramatic show holds me just a matter of seconds because each new development seems more compelling than the last. From the east, from rookeries that I know intimately around the village of Reedham, comes an even larger flock. Perhaps 4,000 birds arrive in a single river of movement and then perform the same wheeling downward plunge of the previous group.  All the while that the visual drama intensifies, their accompanying vocalisations become ever more voluble and excited.

In this description of the process by which the rooks gather and settle on the fields, Cocker is merely describing the prelude to the main event – the sudden lift-off to settle in the trees and roost for the night:

It begins almost casually.  A single concentrated stream of birds breaks for the trees, the stands of trees that have remained almost  unnoticed until this point. Inconsequential while the drama built all around them, the woods known as Buckenham Carrs have grown steadily darker with the onset of night. Now that they have moved centre stage they have become a brooding cavity in the landscape. The birds pour into the airspace above it in ever- growing numbers, and they mount the air until there are so many and the accompanying calls are so loud that I instinctively search for marine images to convey both the sea roar of sounds and the blurry underwater shapes of the flock. It becomes a gyroscope of tightly packed fish roiling and twisted by the tide; it has the loose transparent fluidity of a jellyfish, or the globular formlessness of an amoeba – one that spreads for a kilometre and a half across the heavens.

Cocker compares this vision to ‘black dust motes sinking steadily through the gentle oil of sleep’ but admits that he is at ‘the limits of what my mind can comprehend or my imagination can articulate.’

Whilst many a mingled swarthy crowd —
Rook, crow, and jackdaw,—noising loud,
Fly to and fro to dreary fen,
Dull Winter’s weary flight again;
They flop on heavy wings away
As soon as morning wakens grey,
And, when the sun sets round and red,
Return to naked woods to bed.
– John Clare, from ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar – January’ (1827)

Crow Country draws in autobiographical elements as well observations of bird behaviour. Cocker describes how he and his family moved from a city life in Norwich to make a home in the deep country of the nearby Yare valley. He writes about this move as an act of migration which is bird-like because he senses that it is driven by instinct.  As he settles into the new landscape, he discovers that rook-watching charges ‘many of the things I had once overlooked or taken for granted . . . with fresh power and importance’.  The birds, he says, are ‘at the heart of my relationship with the Yare . . . my route into the landscape and my rationale for its exploration’.

He recalls how, waking in their new home, he heard the rooks each morning, ‘the notes clattering on to the road and the rooftops of the village like flakes of tin’. Then he would see them in the evening, a long silent procession of birds heading north. He began to follow them to what seemed to be their roost, assuming that once they had settled on the hedges and trees that would be the end of the matter. But it was not:

It was virtually dark. There was so little light, I was barely sure if my binoculars were focused or not… Suddenly birds started to fly up in a purposeful jet of black shapes spurting for the trees. The movements of some seemed to act as a detonator on the others. Before I knew what was happening the whole host was airborne and swarming towards Buckenham Carrs.

When the flock was centred over the wood it began to swirl and twist. The birds were wrenched back and forth as if each was caught by the same conflicting impulses. When portions of the flock turned in unison through a particular angle the entire surface of the wingspan… was reduced to a single pencil line. The net effect in the quarter-light of dusk was that whole sections vanished and reappeared a split second later. It was as if a tonne of birds was being conjured and re-conjured from thin air.

He explains the distinction between the birds’ roosts and the rookeries where they breed from late February to June in the nesting season, and contemplates the sense of community endeavour that seems to underpin their behaviour:

In the nesting season, the abundant supply of worms is the key to the rook’s success. The onset of the breeding cycle in earliest spring is timed to coincide with the maximum availability of prey for the chicks. But the food items aren’t spread evenly, they’re clustered randomly…It’s thought that rooks have evolved to share resources and capitalise on the shifting and temporary abundances by pursuing a feeding strategy of follow-my-leader…. Each bird discovering a food hotspot faces the disadvantage of competition from neighbours, but it is more than compensated by the opportunity, on all occasions when it is less successful, to share the good fortune uncovered by others.

Roosts, by contrast, are located elsewhere and inhabited from October through to February.  They are usually in the middle of woods, even though these are birds that feed in grasslands (they often fly up to 25 miles to feeding grounds for the day), and Cocker suggests that protection from weather and predators are an important part of the roosting behaviour. But the biggest advantage for rooks in gathering together in huge numbers in roots  or rookeries is, he concludes, the spread of information about food sources.

Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.
– Edward Thomas, ‘Thaw’

Cocker quotes other writers who have been entranced by rooks:  Thomas Browne and Andrew Young, John Clare and Edward Thomas. There’s no mention of Ted Hughes and his Crow poems, but I think that’s because Hughes’ conception of  a bird with violent, rapacious and disorderly qualities doesn’t quite fit in with Cocker’s rather more sublime vision.  Thinking of Hughes, I came across this poem by Sylvia Plath, ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’, which seems inspired by the iridescent, purplish-blue glossy sheen of the bird’s plumage: ‘a rook/Ordering its black feathers can so shine/As to seize my senses’.  Not simply black, but ‘Tricks of radiance/Miracles’.

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain –
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then –
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honour
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical
Yet politic, ignorant

Of whatever angel any choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur.
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance
Miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,

For that rare, random descent.

Rook flying with stick by C.F. Tunnicliffe

This poem, by Norfolk writer Martin Figura, was written in response to Mark Cocker’s Crow Country:

‘Rooks: for Mark Cocker’

Their broken voices call against the hard ground
of a day’s work. They are the dark coming home
in dissonant scores until this field of stubble
is soft-black with them, the telephone wires
thick and bowed. Ten thousand grey tongues
honour the dusk, the Lowestoft commuter train,
the woods of Buckenham Carrs.
Thrown like muck from a wheel until the sky
is blind with them, they are the exact opposite
of stars. And here they come, all bluster,
their ostentatious flight across the moon
to the hierarchy of branches, to the rough
belonging of bark in their claws.

Rooks going to roost on a Winter evening in Norfolk

To finish, I like these words by Matt Sewell on the Caught By The River site:

It’s almost as if they shouldn’t belong to the Crow family; sociable and generally vegetarian, Rooks are just out for a laugh really. With a clownish, daft face and a shaggy, dishevelled appearance, these croakers aren’t out to cause mischief like their cousins. In fact, when not in their rookery, they spend most of their time in fields not being scared by scarecrows (maybe if all the farmers got together and changed the name to ‘scarerooks’, that would work better). But farmers should just leave them alone as they eat as many pests and crop-eating bugs as they do seeds. Good old Rooks.