Go­ing rogue: one man and his rook

To­day, few boys carry cat­a­pults and fewer still eat rook pie, but life in the tree­tops re­mains largely un­changed for th­ese corvids. Charles Bing­ham tells the tale of a rook on a Wilt­shire farm that cried louder than the oth­ers

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Il­lus­tra­tions by Ju­lian Water­man

Charles Bing­ham tells the time­less tale of one re­mark­able rook on a Wilt­shire farm that sur­vived hunger, boys with cat­a­pults and at­tacks from big­ger birds

The rook­ery in the tops of the leaf­less oak trees was be­side a coun­try lane, the tarred sur­face of which was lit­tered with twigs, fallen and dis­carded from nest-build­ing, and whitened with the splashed drop­pings of the birds. A sin­gle Scots pine stood a short way off and, at the top, a two-year-old rook named Rau­cus and his young mate com­menced their nest in March.

The el­der mem­bers of the colony caa-d in dis­agree­ment at this un­usual choice of a pine tree in­stead of the oaks in which the other nests were built and, de­spite the ef­forts of Rau­cus to in­crease the size of the struc­ture, they pulled the nest to pieces while he was ab­sent gath­er­ing sticks.

Twice, Rau­cus re­newed the base of his nest, twice the mem­bers of the colony had their way. his mate then chose a lowly site in the branches of an oak be­side the lane. The ef­forts of the rook as­sisted henry, a pen­sioner from the nearby cot­tage, who col­lected the fallen sticks each evening; they made kin­dling for the black­ened kitchen range and the open-hearth fire that his sis­ter lit on Sun­days.

The nests were lined with dried grass, dead leaves and sheep’s wool plucked from thorn hedges, the barbs of wire fences or from the sheep them­selves as they lay upon the ground. Into the bowl of Rau­cus’s nest, his mate laid four mot­tled-green eggs dur­ing the fi­nal week of March.

The clutch be­ing com­plete, she sat upon the eggs in proud an­tic­i­pa­tion and was fed by Rau­cus, who ar­rived at the nest with the bare skin of the white pouch be­low his beak swollen with grubs, worms, mag­gots and oat seeds picked from the horse drop­pings in the fields. She flapped her black wings, opened her beak, gur­gled, cried and guz­zled down the food he coughed into her yel­low throat. The shin­ing sun warmed her back, her tail pro­truded over one edge of the nest and she was able to peer over the other with bright and beady eyes.

At times, henry walked be­low and this she and the other moth­ers tol­er­ated, but, if he looked up, the sight of his white face and star­ing eyes caused her to lift off and rise into the air with trou­bled cries. The rooks then cir­cled in the sky un­til the old man hob­bled home.

henry no­ticed the par­ents’ in­creased ac­tiv­ity when the young ones hatched and the greedy squeaks and calls pen­e­trated his old, time-blunted ears.

At the end of April came sev­eral days of rain, in which many of the young rooks died of wet and cold. henry found partly feath­ered bod­ies with blue and swollen bel­lies on the ground be­neath the trees, their par­ents dis­tressed by their in­abil­ity to brood over them, pro­vid­ing pro­tec­tion and warmth, and, at the same time, gather food.

The noises of the rook­ery grew louder in early May, when the young sat on the edges of the nests and on nearby branches. The rook­lets still re­turned to their homes at night, but Rau­cus’s mate had dif­fi­culty in

cov­er­ing them all and one fell to the ground be­side the lane, where it was found and eaten by a for­ag­ing bad­ger in the dark.

By day, many of the young sat in the tree­tops, partly screened from be­low by un­curl­ing, soft-green leaves, th­ese awk­ward, black and spikeyfeath­ered chil­dren be­ing most hand­some to their par­ents.

On the twelfth day of May, two farm­ers and their 14-year-old sons vis­ited the rook­ery to shoot the perch­ing young with rook ri­fles. The old birds cir­cled high in the sky, fright­ened by the men, the bangs, the cracks and the cries of be­wil­der­ment from their off­spring in the trees. They called to their young ones to take to the safety of the air, to fly, but the rook­lets were not yet far enough ad­vanced to trust their wings.

Many were hit and fell, to be gath­ered from the ground by the boys, who tied the dead by their necks in bun­dles; the breasts of the young­sters would be eaten in rook pie later in the week. After an hour, there seemed lit­tle more at which to shoot.

Some rook­lets man­aged to clam­ber back into their nests to shel­ter and oth­ers, sway­ing on the high­est branches, shielded by a screen of leaves,

The old birds cir­cled high in the sky, fright­ened by the men’

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