Weekly Nature Watch

Keith Graham's weekly update on the nature of the Park.

Country View 27.11.14

on .

The sight of television pictures of our American friends on the other side of what is euphemistically known as ‘the pond’ alias the North Atlantic, digging themselves out of eight-foot snow-drifts, came as a stark reminder that we in the Northern Hemisphere are now indubitably in winter mode. There were further reminders of that very basic fact of life, at the weekend. At last, temperatures took a sudden tumble, shaking us out of the apathy that has probably seized us all with roses still threatening to burst into flower and November thus far, offering a very gentle introduction to the winter season.

A glance at the Ben the other morning revealed a cloud cap covering its shapely summit. I have a notion that it won’t be long before that cloud cap is replaced by a rather less ethereal dusting – the first snows of the winter - for snow is sure to become a familiar decoration on the Highland’s higher peaks before very long. So, if we needed a reminder that days are indeed palpably getting noticeably shorter and that winter’s advance is inevitable, as so often is the case, America’s shivering may well be replicated here ‘ere long. 

The brief sighting of a stoat taking its life in its paws and flying across the road in front of me in a blur of fast moving legs and a veritable streak of reddish brown and cream, reminded me that here is a creature that uses obfuscation during the winter months, in an almost unique way. Like mountain hares and those high-flying members of the grouse family, ptarmigan, stoats, or at least some of them, change their brown and cream coats for white during the winter months. However, influenced by the phenomenon that is global warming, fewer of them are making that drastic change, especially among populations based in Lowland Britain.

In the case of mountain hares and ptarmigan I guess such a radical change is quite easy to understand as both are inclined to dwell in those higher places, where snow is likely to lie for much of the winter. Before science took an interest in such matters, it was widely believed that stoats effected such a change by literally eating snow! Now we are told, apparently on very good authority, that the shortening of daylight hours and to a limited degree, lowering temperatures, trigger this change. In other words, as we might expect, it is not self-induced! The clear advantage for ptarmigan, hares and stoats alike, is that by turning white they are given that extra key element of camouflage in snowy conditions. As is dutifully recorded, the tips of the mountain hare’s ears remain black when the rest of its body turns white as does, more famously perhaps, the tip of the stoat’s tail.

As students of the aristocracy and our judicial system will know, ermine, as the fur of winter white stoats is known, is a much-prized fur with which to decorate the robes of nobles and judges. The white fur of such robes is of course splashed by black spots, which I understand, are derived from those black tail tips! So, their noble lords are adorned with the fur of a very special little animal, for which presumably, the final sacrifice is involuntarily made!

Ptarmigan of course, go through four phases of plumage change each and every year, as befitting a creature, which is virtually exclusively a resident of the extremely high places, seldom seen at altitudes of less than two thousand feet. Their plumage changes with the seasons so that they may remain as anonymous as possible at all times of the year, a key element in their struggle for survival in landscapes frequently haunted by patrolling eagles. Mountain hares however, are little more ambiguous and in terms of range perhaps, a tad more ambitious.

Indeed, a good few years ago, I was startled, one winter’s day, to put up such an animal whilst walking across a nearby moss – a wilderness in many ways as wild as any mountain top but located at or around sea level! In that case, the advantage of turning white had been turned on its head for in its brilliant white coat, it stood out like a sore thumb in that soggy, green wilderness! This Lowland dwelling colony of mountain hares may seem to be particularly incongruous in an area where the snow seldom lies and their origins there seem to be something of a mystery. They may perhaps have been introduced to this marshy landscape although equally, they may somehow have found their way on to its heather strewn acres quite naturally, albeit that as far as I know, they have now disappeared from these Lowland acres altogether.

I observe that my sightings of stoats and their smaller cousins, weasels, have become increasingly rare, not quite surprisingly perhaps, for they have long been classified by gamekeepers as ‘vermin’ and as such are therefore shown little or no mercy, often shot on sight. Yet, fluctuations in populations of animals usually have an underlying cause. I have also noted in many places now, where once they were prevalent, the likes of kestrels and short-eared owls are now also extremely scarce.

I am therefore led to the conclusion that populations of small mammals, upon which not only stoats but owls and kestrels too rely, are in decline. There have been mutterings about the possible toxicity of modern seed dressings and as many rodents are eager consumers of seeds, they must naturally be very vulnerable to such contamination. However, in the case of stoats, the disappearance from this and many other areas, of rabbits may also have had a considerable effect. Stoats are renowned for their ruthless pursuit and slaughter of rabbits and theirs is a story therefore, that always tells of David overcoming Goliath!

If the effects of global warming are manifesting themselves through fewer stoats becoming ermine then the same can perhaps be said of the mountain or blue hare. I well remember seeing in this airt on a single day, an all-white stoat, a piebald animal and one with no vestiges of white fur at all. Mountain hares too vary to such an extent that once upon a time it was firmly believed that the British landscape supported three kinds of hare, the brown hare, the slightly smaller mountain hare and the ‘variable’ hare. The latter might of course, be likened to the aforementioned piebald stoat, an animal which had apparently stopped its transition halfway between its ‘blue’ summer coat and its new winter white pelage.

Perhaps, as our world gets progressively warmer, the ‘variable’ hare is about to make a re-appearance? 

Country View 19.11.14

on .

Conditions remain remarkably benign despite a distinctly autumnal feel to the weather and rolling banks of grey mist, which seem to roam this landscape like some giant predator intent on consuming everything in its path. From time to time, it rolls in to obliterate completely our contact with the surrounding landscape. Suddenly we are submerged, utterly enveloped by its cloying presence. The skeletal trees now become indistinct shadows before disappearing altogether as this creeping monster gorges itself, swallowing all but the closest remnants of familiar landmarks. But then, it moves on, silently drifting towards other surrounding landscapes, suddenly allowing the sun at last to briefly illuminate the wonderful autumn colours that make this the golden, ruddy season that it is. ‘Season of mists … indeed!

The muffling silence that comes with these wandering clouds, is broken as evening creeps across the landscape and great hordes of pink-footed geese rise from the vapours. At first there is no sight of such a spectacle, just the sound. It is reminiscent of a crowd in a distant football stadium, the cacophony of their collective voices rising steadily, as if their team is advancing on an opponent’s goal. At first, they shriek unseen but the sound advances until slowly they are revealed, their long, straggling skeins at last briefly materialising, as they fly directly overhead, before disappearing again into the ether. They must have scored (!) for in that moment, the full force of their voices is heard before, as they de-materialise, their gabbling becoming muffled as the mist reclaims them! And they are gone. Silence descends again.

It is perhaps these changing moods that add to the mystique of our autumn and I sometimes ponder, cause the frustrations that such obliteration brings. I know the colours out there are magnificent, yet the vision of them is denied as we are from time to time thus blind-folded, if only temporarily. There have been hints that Jack Frost is lurking close by yet the traffic, such as it is, at my bird feeders, tells it’s own tale. It is utterly dominated by the speugs. A few chaffinches potter and an occasional great or bluetit picks away at the nuts whereas in the main the sparrows swarm all over everything! Only during the last few days has there been a little flurry of goldfinch activity on the niger seed dispensers, and sometimes the nuts, so presumably the autumnal bonanza of seeds in the landscape is at last diminishing. Yet clearly there is as yet, plenty of natural food out there

In recent years I have certainly seen the local goldfinch population flourish. I have grown particularly fond of them for their little red faces and the flashes of gold and yellow on their wings, certainly brings those extra element of colour to proceedings on winter days when darkness or those creeping mists turn landscape colours into a kind of monochrome. And they are feisty little birds, often raucously arguing with each other over seats at ‘the table’; their rasping arguments a stark contrast to their otherwise sweet voices. In better moods their whispering conversations literally charm. Someone once described it as being reminiscent of the muted sound of Chinese bells. However, goldfinches in full voice, are of course, recognised as being amongst the sweetest choristers in our gardens. Collectively they are appropriately known as ‘charms of goldfinches’.

Indeed in days long gone, such was the attraction of goldfinches that millions of them were forced into captivity during that period in our history in the second half of the nineteenth century when Queen Victoria was on the throne. They were perceived to be good to look at with their red faces and golden barred wings as well as being very good to listen to. Catching and keeping cage birds was then a very popular pastime in many parts of the country before thankfully, the cruelty of such practices was at last recognised and legislation introduced to prevent it. At its height however, those millions of birds, with goldfinches among the most desired, were robbed of their freedom and forced to spend their entire lives in miserable little cages.

So popular was this pastime that considerable sums of money were wagered on captive birds that could really sing. It was common practice for bird fanciers to gather, most notably is some of the city drinking dens, in order to engage in competitions between rival birds. Worse still was a belief among some that their birds would sing sweeter if they had been blinded! 

I have often pondered on the strange dichotomies of Victorian life. There was palpably, a great surge in interest in all things natural, as expressed in both art and poetry, as well as in a veritable proliferation of serious literature on natural history, yet there was also a rise in the level of cruelty caused for instance, by the cage-bird collectors. And, curiously enough there was also a desire among the more affluent, to decorate their homes with dead birds and animals, suitably mounted of course and arrayed in glass cases! Such was the popularity of these accoutrements to Victorian life that there were those who made a good living out of killing such specimens. Thus perished for example, the last pair of breeding ospreys in Scotland early in the twentieth century.

I cannot tell if goldfinches were ever displayed in this way. They were on the other hand, a strong presence in devotional art, appearing in many paintings for instance, of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child, especially those painted by French and Italian artists. They are always a collective presence, for goldfinches are extremely sociable birds, which seem to enjoy each other’s company. Their passage across the autumn landscape is always in unison, their little flocks characteristically progressing in undulating togetherness as they travel from one feeding station to another, their murmuring conversations always a charming accompaniment.

Their agility too is well documented as they swing athletically on the likes of thistles and nettles to carefully tweak out the precious, nourishing seeds. If there were avian ball games, goldfinches would, I am sure, be particularly adept at them for one of the sadder and more cruel aspects of the lives of those caged goud spinks, was the placement of water in a little container lowered on a string. To drink therefore, the poor birds had to demonstrate their foot to eye co-ordination by hauling the containers up when they wanted a drink! So how much more rewarding is it to watch them as they freely come and go to enjoy offerings of niger seed! And furthermore they are colourful enough to embellish even the most colourful of autumn days. 

Country View 11.11.14

on .

Many of our winter visitors slip in to this country beneath the radar and remain relatively anonymous most of the time. Many of them come to our eastern seaboard from the other side of the North Sea without much fuss; the likes of woodcock, goldcrests and short-eared owls apparently integrating with indigenous birds seamlessly, their presence largely passing without recognition by sight or sound. A few are more vocal, such as the ravening hordes of fieldfares and redwings which, like their human Viking predecessors, descend upon our landscape in droves. They arrive in a flurry on our fields with collective vigour and hungry ambition, stripping what remains of the berry crop, seeking out invertebrate life and putting themselves about in fast moving, straggling, noisy flocks, their rattling, harsh chacking always evident.

Most of our wintering geese have now arrived together with their new families, having departed the frozen north to add their clamour to the morning rush hour here. On recent mornings, there have indeed been great swirling masses of them rising noisily from the fields when disturbed before re-locating en masse. They re-connect again as dusk falls and they return to their watery night-time roost. It is a breathtaking sound when several thousand of them take to the air together. The massed ranks of pink-feet are unmistakable; their shrill gabbling filling the air, the sound of their restless passage now significant enough to drown out the more sonorous cackling of the resident and lumbering skeins of Canada geese. The massed ranks of pink-feet definitely bring echoes of the Arctic with them, if thankfully, not the temperatures … not yet anyway!

But now, sailing in more serenely and graciously, come the swans, completing their remarkable journey from Iceland. These are what I like to call, the true wild swans, whooper swans, slightly smaller, lighter and more athletic than the more familiar ‘tamer’ mute swans which are of course rather more sedentary by nature. The whoopers, when they arrive, seem to bring that extra dimension of sophistication with their stately passage when in flight. They somehow also create an atmosphere of serenity when sailing across our lochs and the softer fluting of their voices, offer a stark contrast with the coarser gabbling of the geese. Unlike the mute swans, whoopers when spending time on water, or indeed land, generally hold their long necks erect. Thus they may in some respects resemble flotillas of tall ships.

Among these immigrant swans of course are this year’s crop of youngsters. Their start to life is challenging in the extreme for at just a matter of a few months old, they are required to undertake a non-stop flight from Iceland, of some eight hundred miles across the wild North Atlantic to reach their winter quarters. Furthermore, to add considerably to that challenge, they may be led to astonishing altitudes during that long flight, for if hostile weather systems are encountered, they may find themselves being guided by the senior birds to heights approaching thirty thousand feet to over-fly them. In such elevated conditions they will be encountering temperatures of maybe minus 50 degrees at altitudes where oxygen is indeed a rare commodity!

Our ancestors were generally more influenced by ancient myths, legends and superstitions than present generations. Today we are perhaps, more inclined to subscribe to the febrile world of technology (much of it I’m afraid still a complete mystery to me!). Yet, wild swans have always had a very special place in folklore and legend, which may be so deep-seated that some suggest it could go back to Bronze Age times, several thousand years ago. Ireland, perhaps unsurprisingly, is the source of many of the more colourful legends but we may go back to the world of the Ancient Greeks to discover that wild swans drew Apollo’s sky-bound chariot, when he travelled north. Indeed, we are told that Zeus conceived Apollo and his twin Artemis in the guise of a swan!

Irish folklore tells us of the daughter and two sons of the King who were turned into swans by their ‘wicked stepmother’ and sentenced to live for nine hundred years on the Waters of the Moyle! Are they still there? This legend also tells us that the swans sang so wonderfully that anyone who heard them fell under the spell of it and other birds would flock around them to listen. Another myth suggests that anyone hearing this song would fall into an enchanted slumber for three days and three nights. An interesting cure for insomniacs perhaps?

These stories also raise the curious legend of the swans which, again as legend has it, allegedly sing before death, tales that seem to have absolutely no substance in reality. Yet such stories have been recounted since the time of those legendary Greeks. However, there have certainly been times when whooper swans have serenaded me early on winter mornings. There was a time when there was here a kind of ‘rush hour’, the first morning travellers being ranks and ranks of rooks and jackdaws, providing a raucous start to the day, quickly followed by skeins of geese their gabbling conversations only marginally less hoarse. The final contribution came from the swans, their lovely fluting voices, more soothing notes with which to start the day. 

The arrival of the whooper swans always seems to me to confirm the fact that we are now well and truly immersed in the winter months. They fly in almost as gigantic snow-flakes and leave us in no doubt that they are by nature, birds of the north. Indeed, Russia is home to many of them albeit that almost all our migrant whoopers come to us from Iceland. Their southward migration in the autumn takes Russian birds into Central Europe, whilst Icelandic birds head in our direction. Some have cottoned on to the fact that reserves such as Slimbridge in south west England where the very similar but slightly smaller Bewick’s swan are renowned arrivals, are good places to be due to the generous feeding they enjoy. 

However, whoopers generally remain true to their northern roots, preferring to station themselves in the more northerly parts of Scotland, Ireland and England during their winter sojourn here. During their stay they can sometimes be quite nomadic albeit that there are particular lochs to which they come on an annual basis. Their arrival on one such loch sent the resident mute cob into a real tizzy last year. On their arrival, he steamed off in hot pursuit intent it seemed on expelling them. On his arrival, the interlopers took off and flew to the other end of the loch. Whoopers take to the air much more easily and readily than mute swans, so he turned round to swim after them, seemingly in a real huff. Again on his arrival, they took off again and returned from whence they had come. He gave up! 

Country View 4.11.14

on .

The alarm bells are ringing! House sparrows, of all birds, are in serious decline and the British population of this universal bird has fallen across these islands by a staggering seventy per cent and in Europe as a whole by some 150 million birds over the past thirty years. Yet even with such figures in mind, the truth is that there are still over five million pairs of these versatile little fellows at large across this land. Furthermore, even if they are in decline in England, they are apparently, for reasons I do not fully understand, still prospering in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Is this as a result of global warming or do they perhaps, feel more at home on the Celtic Fringe?

Some say that the decline is down to changes in the way we construct houses and presumably other buildings. Modern structures are, it seems, much less ‘sparrow friendly’ with fewer opportunities in particular, for them to build nests. That certainly was not the case when I was a lad, for the eaves of my childhood home always provided ample nesting opportunities which I recall, were very willingly taken. Those eaves fairly echoed to the noisy chatter of speugs virtually during every month of the year! However, these massive figures of decline are food for serious thought and I would have thought, not by any means entirely explained by an apparent lack of nesting sites. After all, sparrows are notoriously adaptable birds, on the evidence down the years, able to adapt to almost any circumstance.

More ominously, some suggest that our sparrows may be likened to the canaries once carried underground by miners. If the canaries died, the message was to don breathing masks and to get out of the mine because of the presence of gas or at best a serious decline in air quality. It is therefore asserted by some that the substantial decline in sparrow numbers, especially in towns and cities mirrors the use of those canaries. Some see this as a warning that such places are indeed becoming increasingly hazardous and polluted, largely thanks to the increasing weight of traffic and the fumes that go with such increases. However, there are many other theories pertaining to the reduction in sparrow numbers, including what might at first glance seem the most fanciful notion, promoted by Spanish experts, who blame radiation from mobile phones!

And yet, in the face of this evidence of decline, history tells us some remarkable stories of sparrow survival and opportunism. A pair was for instance, recorded nesting on the eightieth floor of New York’s Empire State Building whilst in stark contrast, others have been known to survive for several years two thousand feet below ground in Yorkshire coal mines where presumably they were sustained by food provided by the miners. Furthermore, sparrows have over the years, followed mankind into the most obscure corners of this globe and have somehow managed to colonise six of the world’s seven continents. Theirs is therefore a quite remarkable story of global success. Furthermore, that success story has undoubtedly been cemented by the sparrow’s insistence upon living cheek by jowl with us. That however, might be coming home to roost!

Travel anywhere in the world and you will find sparrows sharing man’s food and indeed his dwellings too. Indeed, such has been the omnipresence of these wee birds over the years, they have been widely regarded as something of a nuisance and as a result, have at times been the subject of serious persecution. Whilst most folk probably regard house sparrows as urban or at best, suburban birds, being the opportunists that they are, they are also very familiar birds in rural areas too. The blocky shape of the sparrow’s beak tells us that grain is an important dietary item and consequently farms where grain is grown or stored are especially attractive to them. And, as sparrows are exceedingly well known for their ability to go forth and multiply, as consumers of valuable grain they have from time to time, inevitably brought upon themselves, a climate of antagonism.
Hundreds of years ago in the Low Countries, ‘sparrow pots’ were invented and subsequently introduced to parts of Britain. These were hung to encourage sparrows to nest, a cunning ruse, which was duly exploited with the eggs taken in order to produce omelettes – an extremely useful source of extra protein for folk struggling to feed themselves properly. Furthermore, sparrow pie was in some parts, a local delicacy. Early in the twentieth century, the destruction of sparrows was encouraged by the formation of ‘sparrow clubs’, just as ‘squirrel clubs’ were also all the rage at that time as a means of controlling red squirrel numbers and thus protecting commercial forests from damage. Indeed, during the Second World War, when every ounce of grain was seen as a contribution to the war effort, the BBC regularly broadcast Government appeals for sparrow destruction!

Once upon a time, sparrows were relatively rare hereabouts but over the years, their numbers have grown. I suspect the influx initially, was the over-spill from burgeoning populations on neighbouring farms. Each morning these days, I am entertained when I throw scraps out for my motley flock of hens and watch the sparrows dart down to filch items from under the very beaks of my well-fed poultry. Sparrow numbers here in recent years, have been augmented by the arrival of small numbers of the closely related tree sparrows, which are comparatively rare and much more rurally orientated birds.

If they weren’t so common, sparrows might well be renowned for their attractive plumage. Cock sparrows in particular, with their streaky brown and grey plumage and becoming little black bibs are actually quite attractive. The tree sparrow, with its little black cheek spots is arguably even more pleasing on the eye. 

This startling recent decline in sparrow numbers however, should be taken extremely seriously. They are not the only birds in decline. Recent figures tell a depressing story of declining farmland birds. Skylarks, which until a couple of years ago were always a significant presence here, serenading me as only larks can during my morning rounds, are down by an alarming thirty seven million across Europe and willow warblers are also down by over thirty million. The less we see and especially hear of these iconic birds, the poorer surely, is the quality of our lives. As this general decline has been taking place for many years now, should we perhaps be re-examining the long-term effects of some of the chemicals we use in modern farming? 

Of one thing I’m sure; whilst Nature constantly demonstrates its amazing resilience, the advent of more and more technology, the manic drive for more and more wealth and the rapid pace of change, might well be threatening the very future of our skylarks and sparrows. More pertinently perhaps, it is also perhaps, threatening us. The warnings are stark but they are real. Sparrows may seem to be relatively unimportant in the general scheme of things. Yet they may well be sending us a message, loud and clear. Clean up your act!

Country View 28.10.14

on .

Blustery winds set the cat among the pigeons in no uncertain terms, or rather, stimulated by the arrival of them, the local rooks suddenly ran amok. It was as if the local community of ‘crows’ had been waiting for the remnants of Hurricane Gonzalo to pitch up. Perhaps they had seen the weather forecasts on television; more likely are they to be much more sensitive to changing air pressures and the inevitable arrival of a deep Low pressure system with its tightening isobars, than we mere mortals. The fact was that whether or not they knew what was coming, once it got here they decided to enjoy it!

Indeed, the sky here was filled with rooks, in company with a number of jackdaws, as they tilted at the wind, sailing blithely into the teeth of the at times, gale force winds and then letting rip with all sorts of aerial gyrations. Nothing will ever convince me that the ‘black’ members of the crow clan – the crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws – are averse to playing games and consequently absolutely delight in such windy conditions in order to grab the opportunity to play … with great gusto. That is something that I firmly believe is the very essence of their temperaments. Crows may be black and therefore sinister in the eyes of those who don’t like them but they are without any doubt, fun loving!

The same appetite to play on the wind does not seem to seize all crows however, for although I have seen plenty of evidence that magpies are enthused by some aspects of play, they never seem to tilt at the wind in the same way as the rooks. And jays, the most colourful members of that clan don’t seem be enthused by rising winds either! Are they I wonder, the more seriously minded inhabitants of ‘crow-land’?

Play is perhaps something we more readily associate with kittens or puppies … or even with fox and badger cubs. Indeed, I have spent time watching and indeed being amused by the playful antics of fox and badger cubs, which certainly also play with great gusto. Such play has a purpose of course and play fighting helps siblings to establish family pecking orders albeit that I’m not quite sure how to unravel relationships within incidents in which fox and badger cubs play together. Such an activity I have sometimes speculated, might be contrary to the desires of parent badgers which, being so tidily minded, probably regard the much more ‘slap-dash’, uncouth foxes as undesirable playmates for their off-spring!

Child psychologists could doubtless write reams on the developmental implications of play patterns in children, which are clearly also a vital part of childhood experience and are very much a part of growing up and preparation for adult life. Play patterns in birds however, are rather more difficult perhaps to interpret. For one thing, the play I have described in rooks, is not by any means, an activity restricted to juvenile birds. Indeed, the participants are universal with whole flocks of birds, presumably comprising birds of all ages, including those in their dotage, taking part, all with the kind of enthusiasm and energy one might naturally associate with youngsters.

Perhaps, had the incident recorded, with masses of rooks tumbling about the sky, occurred this evening, it would have been attributed to some kind of ghoulish dance of witches, or indeed the spirits of Halloween running riot on the wind in some sort of dance of dervishes. However, as such demonstrations of ‘rook power’ are likely to occur on any day on which the wind really gets up, such associations are surely erroneous. Furthermore I cannot but reflect on the infectious nature of these bouts of play. It seems to start with one or two birds, their gyrations suddenly acting as a stimulus to others until the mood sweeps through a whole community of them. Eventually, the sky is full of hurtling birds!

This chain reaction certainly fits the communal lifestyle that dominates the rook way of life. However, there is a hierarchical structure to it with a clear discrimination between senior members of a flock and the more junior members, which suggests a degree of ageism! Senior members of rook communities, get the easier living and thus the choice of the very best eateries. They will, more often than not occupy for instance, the prime ground in a field where there are large numbers of the invertebrates upon which rooks delight in feeding. 

The more junior members will be on the periphery of a feeding flock, albeit that they may also be required to undertake ‘sentry’ duties by keeping their eyes open for any potential threats. In this respect, such behaviour is another demonstration of organisation. Some members of a feeding flock will be delegated with the duties of ‘look outs’. They apparently all know their place in the scheme of rook living! Incidentally, rooks are pretty sharp eyed and should you approach such a feeding flock with a stick in your hand, they will very likely take flight. Whilst they are clever, rooks do not seem to have the ability to discriminate between a stick and a gun! Without the said stick, you’ll accordingly get a lot nearer!

Rooks have not generally had a good press, for generations of crop farmers in many parts of the world have waged war against what they have always perceived as, thieves of vast quantities of grain from their fields. However, whilst some research indicates that grain represents a substantial part of the rook diet, it also points towards the bulk of that grain being gleaned from stubble or being un-germinated, neither of which of course, hit the farmers’ pockets. There is plenty of evidence to show that rooks do not eat germinating grain at all and that their preference is indeed for the pests that destroy such crops. The fact that grain takes a lot more time to be digested further distorts the balances and on the other hand, the substantial number of easily digested but harmful pests consumed by rooks perceived to be eating grain, save those same farmers a good deal of money.

Many years ago that doyen of Scottish naturalists, the late David Stephen, conducted an examination of the food found in the crops of a quantity of dead rooks. There was little in the way of grain and plenty of pests such as wire-worms and leather-jackets. But of course, rooks are ‘black’ birds and as such, have always induced the jaundiced eye! 

The reality is that rooks are highly intelligent, fun-loving birds that almost certainly do more good than harm. The next time the wind blows, just get out there and watch and absorb their exuberant flying displays. Rejoice, it’s playtime! It really will lift your spirits.

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods