WA­TER­SIDE WILDLIFE

With the har­vest in, na­ture’s knacker men take over the fields and eat al­most any­thing, says Pip Web­ster

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Na­ture’s knacker men go scav­eng­ing

De­li­cious au­tumn! … if I were a bird I would fly round the earth seek­ing the suc­ces­sive au­tumns” (Ge­orge Eliot). With man’s har­vest safely gath­ered in, flocks of finches and other small birds roam over farm­land in search of seeds, while na­ture’s knacker men, the larger black corvids (mem­bers of the crow fam­ily), will eat al­most any­thing.

You of­ten see a ‘par­lia­ment’ of rooks, ‘clat­ter­ing’ of jack­daws, and even a ‘mur­der’ of car­rion crows in the au­tumn fields, peck­ing through an­i­mal dung in search of in­sects, or fol­low­ing trac­tors, eat­ing leather­jack­ets (the lar­vae of daddy lon­glegs – crane­flies) turned up by the plough.

Both in the air and on the ground there is an ir­re­press­ible jaun­ti­ness about jack­daw move­ments, and their light­coloured eyes have a pierc­ing in­tel­li­gence. Their con­trast­ing grey nape and dark grey breast feath­ers, which be­come es­pe­cially prom­i­nent after the au­tumn moult, dis­tin­guish them from the iri­des­cent black larger corvids.

The res­i­dent UK pop­u­la­tion has in­creased by about 50 per­cent over the last 40 years and they seem quite as at home in the ur­ban land­scape as in farm and wood­land. Many Scan­di­na­vian jack­daws mi­grate south-west to over­win­ter in our milder cli­mate. “… Grey­beard jack­daws, nois­ing as they fly” (John Clare) bear a dou­bly ono­matopoeic name: a sharp “chyak” is a char­ac­ter­is­tic con­tact call and the more grat­ing “daw” is an alarm call. Ety­mol­ogy can be ob­scure - “jack” is used in an­i­mal names to signify a small form, and jack­daws are no­tice­ably smaller than their cousins; while “daw” meant knave dur­ing the 16th Cen­tury. Their lik­ing for bright, shiny ob­jects may have given rise to the Latin spe­cific name Corvus mon­edula – “money-bird”.

It can be dif­fi­cult to dis­tin­guish car­rion crows from rooks, es­pe­cially when they are on the ground in a mixed flock con­tain­ing young­sters. Adult rooks have what looks like a white beak: rough grey-white skin, free of feath­ers, ex­tends around the base of the bill and its chin; and they gen­er­ally have a looser fit of their plumage – the feath­ers hang down the up­per legs rather like a pair of baggy shorts. They are in­tensely so­cia­ble birds, in marked con­trast to the car­rion crow’s soli­tary or paired ex­is­tence. Old coun­try folk rarely both­ered to sep­a­rate the two birds: the ‘scare­crow’ is a clas­sic misiden­ti­fi­ca­tion – these men of straw were never in­tended to guard ce­real crops from a soli­tary bird, but from grain-de­vour­ing rook flocks.

At dawn and dusk you can watch the move­ments of the Corvids be­tween their roost­ing and feed­ing grounds: “…many a min­gled swarthy crowd – rook, crow, and jack­daw – nois­ing loud, Fly to and fro to dreary fen” (John Clare). The most con­spic­u­ous and nois­i­est are the fast-fly­ing rooks, so maybe we should mea­sure the short­est dis­tance “as the rook flies”. These men­ac­ing look­ing large black birds rid the coun­try­side of much un­wanted de­bris, but they are also guilty of help­ing them­selves to the eggs and chicks of other birds when they are avail­able.

Also scav­eng­ing in the au­tumn coun­try­side are the red foxes. In ad­di­tion to live mam­malian prey, birds, frogs earth­worms and in­sects, foxes eat car­rion, the con­tents of my bin bag, and fruit – ado­les­cent foxes must find the abun­dance of fruit in au­tumn a boon while they are still per­fect­ing their hunt­ing skills.

Fox cubs are born be­tween late March and May and as they grow up, the links within the fam­ily di­min­ish. They soon start to travel alone in search of food and, al­though young vix­ens may re­main to­gether in the home range for sev­eral years, young dog foxes usu­ally dis­perse by late au­tumn. Some ma­ture foxes may also make excursions out of their pre­vi­ous ter­ri­to­ries in search of food.

With night com­ing ear­lier and pres­sure on space and re­sources, you are more likely to catch a glimpse of these usu­ally noc­tur­nal hunters mov­ing around the coun­try­side. En­joy look­ing.

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