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
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’