Fairies, Folklore and Forteana
SIMON YOUNG FILES A NEW REPORT FROM THE INTERFACE OF STRANGE PHENOMENA AND FOLK BELIEF
I wrote last month about the way that rooks are supposed to abandon rookeries before the death of the human owner (FT429:29). Another chapter in corvid forteana is the notion of the ‘court’. A human witness watches as a group of corvids (usually rooks or crows) meet in a circle and then judge and kill one of their own.
Consider this vivid example from 1956 (thanks to Bob Skinner). Two men “saw scores of rooks converging from all quarters towards a large mound…
Their full-voiced cries were unwontedly raucous, seeming to be evoked more by anger than by alarm, and their flights above the mound were erratic. Then suddenly, as if at a given signal, the noise stopped. The birds alighted in a large company on the grass at the foot of the mound and slowly, but with precision, formed themselves into an inner and an outer circle, leaving a solitary rook standing within the smaller one. The cawing started again… with no break in formation; then the inner circle began to quiver as a prelude to closing in on the rook in the centre. Before we realised what was happening the company broke up, took to wing and departed. On the ground was left the dead body of a rook”.
I am struck by the sheer number of accounts like this. There are dozens: I know
“THE COMPANY BROKE UP, TOOK TO WING AND DEPARTED... ON THE GROUND WAS THE DEAD BODY OF A ROOK”
as I’ve been collecting them... But I also wonder whether these memories are not, in part, human attempts to make sense of the alien world of birds. Rooks are naturally gregarious birds and there is a good chance that after a roosting (which sometimes involves thousands of birds) there is a dead rook left on the ground. Let me tell you a story: i) countless rooks, ii) caw-cawing and iii) a dead bird. But then there are accounts that are more difficult to dismiss in this way. Take the following from 1880. A hiker in the Alps came upon a “small secluded glen, surrounded by thick cover, concealed in which he was enabled to contemplate a strange spectacle.” There “sixty to seventy ravens had formed a circle round one of their fellows… Every now and then they interrupted their debates for a brief space to listen to the energetic representations of the prisoner... Presently, having arrived at the unanimous conclusion that the arraigned bird had failed to exculpate itself, they suddenly flew upon him from all sides, and tore him to pieces.” Ravens do not habitually meet in groups of “sixty to seventy”. I am sure of the sincerity of the first witness and his rook court. I wonder about his interpretation. I have no idea what to make of an Alpine raven lynching. (For a magpie court, see FT257:77.)
Simon is co-presenter of the Boggart and Banshee podcast.