When it comes to mu­si­cal flair, the Rook is more AC/DC than The Car­pen­ters. It leads a pretty com­plex life, too…

Bird Watching (UK) - - Con­tents - DOMINIC COUZENS

Renowned bird au­thor Do­minic Couzens

re­veals why the com­plex Rook is more ‘heavy metal’ than ‘easy lis­ten­ing’ on

Here’s some ad­vice: never pick a ho­tel too close to an air­port. I re­cently se­lected what seemed like the per­fect spot near Gatwick, but the ex­tra­ne­ous noise was re­mark­ably per­sis­tent. It wasn’t just the air traf­fic in the sky and on the run­way, the dis­tur­bance also came from ex­ces­sive com­mo­tion and shout­ing in a con­struc­tion site next door. You would think the ho­tel would have been prop­erly sound-proofed, but the din, par­tic­u­larly the in­ter­mit­tent swell of raised voices, kept me awake from the crack of dawn. Trip Ad­vi­sor (there are other such web­sites) has been alerted. Mind you, none of this was hu­man noise; the gen­tle, far-off rum­ble of Gatwick planes was in­ci­den­tal. All the sound – the tak­ing off and land­ing, the con­struc­tion and the shout­ing – was made by Rooks. The ho­tel was next to a colony in the midst of its early-sea­son ex­plo­sion of ac­tiv­ity – and it was a glo­ri­ous hub­bub. And of course, truth­fully, I rel­ished the im­mer­sion into nat­u­ral noise and have no com­plaints at all.

Rook rock

Many peo­ple are fa­mil­iar with this won­drous coun­try­side ca­coph­ony, a far cry from the sweet­ness of the dawn cho­rus, more heavy metal than easy lis­ten­ing, an of­fer­ing of Rook rock. There are, ap­par­ently, more than 20 dif­fer­ent Rook calls, but dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing them is hard be­cause many of them are vari­a­tions of ‘caw’. Gen­er­ally, Rook caws are gen­tler and less hos­tile than Car­rion/hooded Crow calls (a Rook is a crow that has had anger coun­selling); but af­ter that, who can tell a ‘caw’ from a ‘caw’? Lis­ten care­fully for long enough and you will hear

the odd higher-pitched of­fer­ing, as if an ado­les­cent’s voice was break­ing, but the great de­light in lis­ten­ing to a Rook colony is the over­all sound that many voices make to­gether. The dark birds bring life and verve. If you are stressed, I se­ri­ously sug­gest that you spend a few min­utes next to a rook­ery in full breed­ing swing. Shut your eyes, breathe in the ru­ral smells and al­low the sound to wash over you. The racket is re­mark­ably peace­ful. An­other de­li­cious as­pect of rook­ery life is also, of course, its early start. Rooks are among the ear­li­est of all Bri­tish birds to breed, fre­quently bring­ing sticks to their nests in Fe­bru­ary, or even on a balmy Jan­uary day. By the third week of March, any­where in the UK, Rooks will have eggs. And be­fore that, the birds build nests, dis­play, cop­u­late and make a great deal of noise. While the early spring coun­try­side ten­ta­tively opens its eyes and yawns, and Prim­roses peep shyly from banks that aren’t yet used to the sun, Rooks are al­ready par­ty­ing.

Breed­ing strat­egy

The rea­son for the Rook’s fast start is that it needs to feed its young on in­ver­te­brates that are eas­ier to find and har­vest when the ground has not yet dried out. Rooks rel­ish the swish and squelch of spring, when the ground is likely to be sat­u­rated from win­ter rains. Not only will the ground be soft, so that Rooks can plunge their bills into mud full of leather­jack­ets and earth­worms, but it will also be com­par­a­tively bare, be­fore too much growth over­takes the for­ag­ing ar­eas and make it eas­ier for prey to hide. Their in­ter­nal phys­i­ol­ogy does the arith­metic for them. If they lay eggs, say, on or about 15 March, they will hatch 16-18 days later, in the first week of April. As we all know, that is long be­fore the sun takes hold and dries out the Bri­tish coun­try­side. An in­ter­est­ing quirk of breed­ing early is that Rooks need to work their re­la­tion­ships out early, too. You might be sur­prised to hear that this hap­pens in au­tumn, when you’d think that birds’ minds are con­sumed with the com­ing win­ter. But no, with such a strict timetable, the nup­tials are sorted be­fore the leaves have fallen off the trees. Judg­ing by the be­hav­iour of Rooks in their colonies in early spring, how­ever, you could con­clude that they don’t do a very ef­fec­tive job in the au­tumn. The rook­ery is a place of sex­ual li­cence, and this goes some way to ex­plain­ing why, at cer­tain times, the colonies make such a fear­ful racket. De­spite hav­ing been paired off, both sexes are given to promis­cu­ity. For ex­am­ple, it seems that a male Rook doesn’t pass muster un­less it has cop­u­lated with ev­ery one of its near­est fe­male neigh­bours. Sev­eral weeks in Fe­bru­ary and March see

daily con­flicts over in­ap­pro­pri­ate li­aisons. Part of the prob­lem is the op­por­tu­nity. In­tensely colo­nial, Rooks place their nests, on av­er­age, 0.5m to 2m apart. There is no such place as a rook­ery nook, a pri­vate cor­ner of the melee, be­cause every­body can see every­body else. If there is a par­tic­u­larly de­sir­able mem­ber of the op­po­site sex in the near­est neigh­bour­hood, there is scant chance to es­cape temp­ta­tion. A randy male is go­ing to know ex­actly when the ir­re­sistible fe­male’s mate is not at home; it will also be aware that the fe­male, which tends to re­main on or close to the nest for long pe­ri­ods of the breed­ing sea­son, in­clud­ing all in­cu­ba­tion and most brood­ing, will fre­quently be home alone. The re­sult is rook­ery nookie, and not all of it is con­sen­sual. ‘Rape,’ or forced cop­u­la­tion, hap­pens all the time. And ev­ery time it hap­pens, there is an almighty out­break of in­dig­na­tion. The nearby males leap to the ‘de­fence’ of the blighted fe­male, voices at full vol­ume in protest. Their aim, it seems, is to stop the out­rage in its tracks, but their real mo­tive may be dif­fer­ent. Rooks have been seen to an­grily break up an ‘at­tempted rape’, only to suc­cumb to temp­ta­tion with the same fe­male them­selves. It seems that the lofty, open cup-nests, si­t­u­ated close to­gether, in tree­tops yet without leaves, pro­mote open re­la­tion­ships. It has also been said that the fe­male Rook’s so­lic­it­ing pos­ture is not very dif­fer­ent from its pos­ture when in­cu­bat­ing, which can­not help.

In­trigu­ing be­hav­iour

The open nest ar­range­ment is also a cue for some in­trigu­ing fe­male be­hav­iour. Some­what sur­pris­ingly, given the above, many Rook­eries hold a pro­por­tion of un­paired fe­males. Such birds won’t have any prob­lem be­com­ing im­preg­nated, of course, but they need a male to help them guard the nest and pro­vide food when they are in­cu­bat­ing. In the ab­sence of a mate, these fe­males some­times ac­tu­ally get round to build­ing a nest, some­what un­sub­tly, di­rectly next to an­other bird’s nest, or even abut­ting it, pre­sum­ably in the hope of si­phon­ing off some of the male’s pro­vi­sion. It rarely ends well; typ­i­cally, both the un­paired fe­male’s nest and her im­me­di­ate neigh­bour fail. One of the great sights of spring is to watch the com­ings and go­ings of Rooks at a rook­ery. Through­out March, and into the sec­ond half of April, al­most all of these com­ings and go­ings are com­mut­ing runs by males. With good nest sites at a premium (the higher they are up a tree, the fewer the losses of eggs and chicks), some­body needs to be present on a ter­ri­tory most of the time, so it be­comes in­cum­bent on the males to do all the pro­vi­sion­ing. For weeks they fly to and fro from feed­ing site to nest site, trav­el­ling ‘as the crow [ac­tu­ally the Rook] flies’, bring­ing in food. From the egg-lay­ing stage to the point where the chicks are half grown, the male brings ev­ery­thing. And ev­ery time they ar­rive at the nest, there is a ca­coph­ony, an ex­cuse for Rook rum­pus. Meet­ing, greet­ing, com­pet­ing, com­plain­ing – the noises of Rooks are many and won­drous, re­flect­ing the com­plex­i­ties of their lives.


Of our corvids, only Rooks nest colo­nially, in rook­eries

An ex­treme case of sev­eral males at­tempt­ing to mate with a sin­gle fe­male

Rooks will some­times feed from bins!

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