1931. Observations of wildlife mainly in and around London. Bookplate: Ex Libris Avinium: R. A. W. Reynolds
[words: 2400]


John Kearton







Rooks are very wary and cunning birds, and usually difficult to photograph. If they see anything to arouse their suspicions, such as the lens of a well-hidden camera, they walk up very cautiously, cram their beaks to capacity with food, and then fly away to some quiet corner of the garden where they half empty their bills and then polish off their plunder in safety. I find that the majority of people have great difficulty in distinguishing the Rook. Every black bird of any size is called a crow and left at that. The adult Rook may always be easily identified by the feather-denuded white patch round the base of the bill. In the young birds, however, until a year old, the nostrils are clothed with bristles. The feathers of the flanks hang down, giving the bird a somewhat ragged appearance as it walks with a slightly rolling gait in search of its widely varied diet.

The Rook is on the whole beneficial to agriculture, and where their numbers have been reduced this work has been found to suffer. They devour large numbers of insect pests such as wire-worms, leather-jackets, and slugs, for which they either diligently dig, or else follow the plough, as opportunity offers. How they manage to detect the presence of grubs in the ground, whether with the aid of some special sense or merely by guesswork, has not been ascertained. Rooks do a certain amount of damage to vegetable produce, as they will feed on newly sown grain, potatoes, and ripe corn. They have visited our garden in the early spring and rooted up newly planted shallots.

In February the birds start the reconstruction of their old nests, which are added to until they become big masses of sticks about two feet in diameter, strengthened by earth and small sods, and lined with hair, grass, and other soft material. During building operations one of the pair usually keeps guard whilst the other is hunting for material, as much pilfering goes on. The eggs, three to six in number, are laid in March, and towards the end of that month, or the beginning of April, the young are hatched. At this period the Rooks have a very anxious time, especially if the ground is frostbound, as they suffer severely from dearth of food for themselves and their offspring. The great majority of early nests of such birds as Thrushes and Blackbirds are, in my opinion, robbed by Rooks and Jackdaws.

[...400 words, extracts from pp5-7]




Not far away from the place where the Peewits were nesting, there is a large field in which several very ancient beech and Spanish chestnut trees grow. Owing to their age, they contain many holes, nooks, and crannies, which are taken full advantage of by Owls and Jackdaws. The latter birds not only nest in the holes, as is their usual custom, but those unable to find inside accommodation construct open-topped nests among the branches. One day I clambered up into a beech and took a peep into a hole formed by a branch which had broken off at a height of about twelve feet from the ground. To my surprise, I saw that Mrs. Jackdaw had so delayed her departure, that in spite of the warning provided by my clumsy clambering, I had actually trapped her on the nest. As can be imagined, she showed every appearance of alarm in her bluish-grey eyes, and edged to the far end of her retreat. Just as I was about to insert my hand, she disappeared into the side of the tunnel which connected with another hole in a different part of the trunk, and presently, to my great surprise, flew away from the other side of the tree. I found that the nest, which was made of a collection of sticks, lined with wool, grass, and hair, contained five eggs. By way of decorations, there were several torn-up pieces of old newspapers and a number of fluted papers such as are used to contain small cakes, which had evidently been dropped by picnickers.

When the young ones in this particular nest had been hatched, I arrived on the scene with my apparatus, hoping to obtain a few pictures of the old birds taking in food to their offspring. I soon discovered, however, that this was no easy task, because, the nesting-hole being some twelve feet from the ground, it was necessary to raise the camera on stilts by lashing three strong poles to the tripod in order to secure the requisite elevation. Unfortunately, it had the effect of making the hiding-cloth much too short. When this and other defects in the camouflage had been remedied, I stood up in the structure and waited for a long time for the return of the parents, but had no luck that day. On the morrow I tried again, and during the afternoon obtained several snapshots. Owing to the fact that the enormous tree spread its branches and leaves in a canopy over quite a large area, I at once recognised that nothing but a fairly long exposure would be adequate. As the westering sun neared the horizon, rays of light penetrated the lower branches and increased my chances of success. The last exposure, made at a speed of one-tenth of a second at 7 p.m., turned out to be the best, and is here reproduced. I felt very proud that night on developing the plate, as the difficulties of the situation and lighting were exceptional.

image 29k ~ Jackdaw

Although the birds returned many times with food for the chicks whilst I was standing and watching with all the patience I could muster, first on one foot and then on the other, I could not tell what the food was, as in no case did it show in the beak, but was all brought along in the pouch, which was a trifle swollen, as can be seen in the illustration. Nearly every time I released my focal-plane shutter Mrs. Jackdaw jumped about a foot in the air, and, as the exposure was necessarily such a slow one owing to lack of light, most of the negatives showed movement.

I took two of the young birds home as pets, and a pair of cunning rascals they turned out to be. From the time they were let out from their roosting-cage in the morning until they were returned to it at night they were on the look-out for some kind of mischief. A laurel-bush in which they spent a good deal of their time perching was nearly stripped of its leaves. If anybody happened to be sitting on a near-by garden seat, the birds would approach and inquisitively peck the seeker after repose with annoying frequency. They were particularly attracted by boot-laces, which they would untie with every evidence of enjoyment. The repeated blows from their strong bills often drew blood from the hands of those who attempted to catch them.

They would feed on practically anything, but nothing excited them so much as a piece of cheese, for the possession of which they would chase and fight each other with an intensity no other kind of food could excite in equal degree. On one occasion during the winter I was away from home, and in my absence one of the Jackdaws was taken ill. On returning, I found the bird in a very bad way indeed – nearly dead, in fact. I brought it into the kitchen for warmth, and forced some heated olive oil into its beak. To my great surprise and joy, the bird made a very rapid recovery, and was practically well again in a few hours. I kept it, however, for a day or two perched on a basket in a corner of the kitchen. One evening I heard a flapping of wings, and the family cat came rushing out. I naturally thought that Thomas had been molesting the bird, but, as I afterwards proved, it was the other way about. Whenever the unfortunate Puss endeavoured to enter his rightful domain, the Jackdaw would swoop down from his perch to attack, and the cat would bolt in panic, leaving his small adversary master of the situation. I watched this happen several times, until the cat was frightened to put its head in at the door. I did not think so small a creature would have the pluck to attack such a savage enemy as a cat.

When the spring came round the Jackdaws stayed in the neighbourhood for some time, but their visits to the garden became fewer, until at last they ceased altogether. Doubtless the birds took themselves off to mate and breed.

The Jackdaw may be found in a great variety of places. It is equally at home whilst nesting in the trees in some well-timbered park, holes in cliffs or church towers, or down an unused chimney, and has even been known to utilise rabbit-burrows. The nest may consist of as much as a cartload of sticks or just a few handfuls of grass, wool, or hair, according to the situation. Sometimes the birds work very hard indeed gathering sticks to fill up belfries and towers so that the nest shall be within easy reach of the entrance-hole. Quite a number of instances have been recorded where they have filled up a tower to a height of ten or twelve feet in the surprisingly short time of three weeks.

The Jackdaw may be distinguished from the Rook by its smaller size, absence of bald patch at the base of the bill, and by the grey feathers on the back of the head and neck. Also, whilst in flight its wing-beats are far more rapid. The feeding habits of the jackdaw are very like those of the Rook, and at most seasons of the year the birds may be seen hunting together in the fields for insect pests. On the arrival of spring they turn their attention to the destruction of eggs and young birds.

[...1250 words, extracts from pp38-43]


A friend of mine, who is interested in birds was hunting for Magpies' nests where they are as a rule fairly common. During his search he managed to cover a large area of country, and succeeded in finding dozens of nests, but in nearly every case discovered they contained dead young ones. The owners had no doubt been either shot or poisoned by the gamekeepers and farmers in the district, with the result that their young ones starved. At last, my friend came upon a nest containing chicks nearly ready to fledge, took two of the family home, and later on gave one of them to me. I christened him Grip, and turned him loose in the orchard, where he spent most of his time teasing the fowls. His favourite trick was to poke his head through the wire fence dividing the kitchen garden from the fowl run and seize an old hen by the tail. By the time the startled bird had turned to retaliate, Grip had withdrawn his head to safety, and was no doubt chuckling heartily over the incident. Whenever a big cock chicken towered over him in a threatening attitude, Grip would open his great red gape, spread his wings, and Chanticleer would be so disconcerted at the appearance of such an unusual aspirant to farmyard honours that he would walk away without assaulting the small and impudent rival. Occasionally, however, the hens would make a concerted rush at him, and Grip would then very prudently take refuge in a near-by fruit tree, and chatter defiance at his baffled pursuers. The appearance of mock gravity he would assume whilst sitting on the edge of a feeding-trough pretending to be a chicken was most amusing. During his short stay among the poultry, Grip was in very truth the Charlie Chaplin of the farmyard. He had all the fondness of his species for obtaining and hiding bright objects, and if a sixpence were given him it would be stowed away with a great display of covetousness and caution. He would also endeavour to remove one's watch with the effrontery of a pickpocket, lacking, however, that mortal's unobtrusive lightness of touch.

In years gone by the Magpie was a much more numerous species than it is to-day, and old writers speak of the bird as haunting the vicinity of human dwellings. Owing, however, to its objectionable habit of carrying off young poultry and sucking eggs, its presence in the neighbourhood of villages and farms is nowadays severely discouraged. In many districts, especially where game is strictly preserved, the Magpie is almost completely banished, and in most other places generations of persistent persecution have considerably reduced its numbers.

Anyone who has the good fortune to see one of these birds at close quarters in its wild state is at once impressed by the real beauty of the plumage. At a distance the Magpie appears black and white, but a closer view discloses that on the wing there is a patch of metallic blue, which changes to a greenish hue at certain angles. The tail, which is often ten inches long, is black, with a mixture of iridescent green and purple.

The appearance of the Magpie is very distinctive, and cannot be mistaken for that of any other bird. Its nest, a feat of avian architecture, is also unusual. It is made of strong sticks, cemented with mud or clay, and spherical in shape, with a domed roof. There is an entrance-hole at one side, from which the sitting bird keeps a good look-out whilst brooding. The inside is lined with roots and other soft material, whilst the sticks forming the roof are usually of thorn, the spikes of which form additional discouragement to any intruder. The birds, if spared, return to the same locality year after year, and in April deposit their brown-spotted greenish eggs.

There is an old rhyme about the Magpie which runs as follows:

One for sorrow, two for mirth, Three for a wedding, four for a birth.

[...670 words, extracts from pp46-49]


The nest of the Yellow Bunting is usually a very untidy structure of coarse dead grass roots, and moss, with a lining of horsehair, generally placed close to, or actually on the ground. Because of the peculiar streak-like markings on the eggs, the bird is often known in many parts of the country as the Writing or Scribbling Lark. There is an old superstition that Satan supplies the bird with some of his blood in order to mark the eggs in this way.

[...80 words, extracts from pp72]