It is generally agreed that the cleverest birds are rooks and parrots, which are well known to be social and talkative. Both have very good brains, and this may have led to their social habits. On the other hand, the relatives of rooks, such as carrion-crows and ravens, have also very fine brains, and have remained solitary. All the European relatives of the rook are solitary except the jackdaws. Perhaps there is some difference in mood between rooks and crows.
Another way of looking at it is this: living together and talking a good deal may have favoured progress in the direction of nimbler wits; for these things often work round in circles, and it is a great law of progress in the world of life that to him that hath, more shall be given. Let us think of rooks for a little.
It is in February that the story of the rooks begins, for that is the time of courting. The cock-bird struts and bows before the hen, and spreads out his wings and tail; and, as Gilbert White noticed, "rooks, in the breeding season attempt sometimes, in the gaiety of their hearts, to sing, but with no great success." The strutting and bowing and "singing" may occur at other seasons, when the rooks are well pleased with the world, but it is most marked during the courtship. An interesting little ceremony is sometimes seen. The male bird brings his desired mate a little presentsome titbit or otherwhich she accepts with thanks if she likes him. Two rooks seem to remain together for life, but there is a courting every year.
Early in March, while it is still very cold, the rooks begin to prepare a nest. Sometimes they use an old one over again, after a thorough spring-cleaning. There is a good deal of disputing over the twigs, and up to a certain stage they steal from one another if they can. But one rook usually mounts guard while the other breaks the twigs from the leafless trees. After a while they exchange duties. To the pliable twigs they add some earth and clay, and the inside of the nest is made comfortable with grass and leaves, hair and wool. There are often a dozen nests on one tree, and as many as thirty have been counted. If a branch breaks off, or if there is even a hint of such an accident, the rooks leave the tree. It should be noticed that during the nest-building time the rooks go back at night to their roosting-place, which is usually quite apart from the rookery, but this going to and fro stops when the egg-laying begins, towards the end of the month.
There are usually three to five eggs in a nest, and the mother bird sits very close, the male taking a turn now and then. The colour of the eggs in one clutch is often very different from the colour in another, and this diversity, perhaps due to diet, may have to do with the fact that the eggs are so safe that their colour does not matter much. The nests are so conspicuous that it is of little consequence whether the eggs are or are not. From most enemies, we say, the rook's eggs are safe, but a toll is levied by carrion-crows, which are very successful robbers. It seems rather strange that the rooks should allow this, but they are not very good fighters. Perhaps there is some softness in their character that has led them to be social.
After the eggs hatch, the parents have a very busy time, for the young birds have a large appetite. They are fed on grubs and wireworms and other young insects, so at this time of year the rooks do the farmer a good turn. It is said that in early days the father hands over his collection to the mother, who gives it to the young; later on, both parents feed the young directly, but the mother's contributions seem to be most appreciatedwhy, we do not know.
There is great excitement when the young rooks leave the nest and make their first aerial excursions. And here it may be noticed that rooks often indulge in various kinds of playgambols and sham-fights and wild chases. In September there is a flitting from the rookery to the roosting-place, where they spend the winter. Or sometimes there is a partial migration to more congenial quarters.
There seems no doubt that rooks have a number of "words," that is to say, different sounds with particular meanings. Between thirty and forty have been distinguished, and we have counted ten at a rookery. One word was uttered when we moved suddenly beneath the trees, and another when a bird went too near his neighbour's nest. There is one word when the rook sinks down upon the nests and another word when it flies clear of the rookery and makes for the fields. There is most talking, perhaps, at the roosting-place, when the business of the summer is over. "A marvellous medley," said Mr. Edmund Selous in his delightful book, Bird-Watchings, "a wonderful hoarse harmony. Here are shoutings of triumph, chatterings of joy, deep trills of contentment, hoarse yells of derision, deep guttural indignations, moanings, groanings, tauntings, remonstrances, clicks, squeals, sobs, cachinnations, and the whole a most musical murmur. Loud, but a murmur, a wild, noisy, clamorous murmur; but sinking now, softeninga lullaby."
"I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder."
There is much to be said for the rook, and we think he would say the same of us. For he is distinctly philanthropic. From our point of view, in the first place, the rook is very handsome with his glossy black feathers that show blue, purple, violet, and green reflections as the light plays on them. Like most strenuous creatures, the rook has worked-out pleasant curves on its body, just as a yacht has its thought-out stream-lines. There is an artistic point in having a white to grey patch round the base of the bill, for it "sets off" the head. The disappearance of the bristly feathers round the nostrils and on the chin, which occurs after the first birthday, is not directly due, as some Lamarckians assert, to digging or "howking" in the soil after grubs and such like. It is an engrained constitutional peculiarity, and it is exhibited on birds that have had no opportunity of digging. It is a localised hereditary baldness, and a sign of maturity. Even from a distance, one can tell an isolated social rook from the normally solitary crow by this whitish splash round the root of the bill.
In the second place, there is the admirable flight, with its steady strokes as in a well-rowed boat, much more rapid than it seems. We have often timed rooks as they disappeared over a ridge three miles off in a glen, and, unless there is some optical fallacy, it always came to about a mile in a minute.
But besides ordinary flight, there is extraordinary flight, as when male rooks make nose-dive displays during their courtship. There is often some very pretty aerial gambolling when rooks are in high spirits. It has no meaning beyond play. But there is nothing to surpass the mastery of the air which is to be seen when rooks "shoot" down with half-closed wings on their resting-place or on their rookery.
No doubt the rook is a sociable bird. It likes to have its kindred about; it hobnobs with jackdaws; it seems to like to have man as a next-door neighbour, for a great many rookeries are in the vicinity of houses. But while the rook is the most sociable of European birds, it has not taken great steps towards sociality. We mean that, in spite of its gregariousness all the year round, there is little development of communal life. This is illustrated by the way in which the depredations of carrion-crows and other marauders are tolerated. A little organisation on the rooks' part would soon put an end to that sort of thing, which sometimes goes so far that the rookery is deserted! It is doubtful whether rooks really post sentinels, and the rooks' "parliaments" that have been described have probably to do with partial migrations. On rare occasions a rook will stand up to a fight, but we think he is at heart a Quakera kindly, good-natured believer in non-resistance. Thus while his relatives, except the daws, are in the main solitaries, it has suited the rook's friendly temperament to become very gregarious. "There is safety in numbers," he says. Moreover, he is fond of talking.
There is a strong case for giving rooks credit for considerable kin-sympathy, for they will often continue flying near one of their number who has been killed or wounded by a gun. Although they dislike the very sight of a gun, the impulse to stay by their comrade is stronger than fear. Another of their virtues we were almost forgettingtheir liking for a bath. This is so keen that it is sometimes gratified amongst the snow. Long live the rook!
Before we change the subject, however, let us refer to the rook's near relatives. The rook is technically called Corvus frugilegus and the Carrion Crow is Corvus corone, another species of the same genus. The beak of the crow is stouter than that of the rook, and the nostrils are covered with bristle-like feathers, not becoming bare as in a rook that has quite grown up. One must not make too much of the fact that the rook is social and the crow solitary, for a rook may nest away from a rookery and crows sometimes congregate in winter. The two species have different voices. Then there is the Hooded or Grey Crow, Corvus cornix, with a conspicuous mantle of grey; but many authorities regard it as not more than a variety or race of the Carrion Crow. The somewhat rare and much larger Raven (Corvus corax) and the lively Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) are both first cousins of the Rook.
TRANSCRIPTION NOTE: This printing in my possession has the words "Corvus ornix" for Hooded
Crow. I have corrected what I assume to be a simple printing error. [Pwl ~ Jan99]
ORNITHOLOGICAL NOTE: Although this purports to be a scholarly and authoritative work,
I believe it to be somewhat loose of unchecked fact.... suspect mostly a simple
rehash-writing of popular myths that were once in common circulation. Most
rook-observers of more meticulous notes would dispute that male rooks generally
sit on nests. And I have never seen a rook fly faster than about 40-45mph in
sustained level flight. Though I'd agree with the comment about their flight being
"admirable." Caer! But apart from that, it is a rather charming hear-say
account of somewhat superficial and fanciful fervour. (:>) [Pwl ~ Oct99]