Around where I live, you can tell when spring is coming when there is a marked change in the birdsong. And this starts in January; building, building into such excited chatter by May Day that it is almost too much to bear.
Before that, the soundtrack of our winter is held together by Crow, Rook and by Jackdaw.
Corvids are extraordinarily intelligent and have adapted really well to life in our towns and cities, and in our ruins… I love watching them. Their walk, hop, flight – everything is with calculated purpose; their intelligence oozes from them, and I find them extremely beautiful. They have adapted well to living alongside humans.
Matthew Oates, in his newest book BEYOND SPRING: Wanderings through Nature (The only place you will be able to buy a hardback copy of this book, for only £15, is via this link, and only until 29 May 2017), writes the following in his chapter entitled The Jackdaws of Avebury, written: March 21st, Avebury, Wiltshire. As Fair Acre Press is publishing this book – here is a decent excerpt. My heart is bursting with joy over Matthew’s book – I sense it marks a huge leap forwards in Nature-writing:
Avebury is run by a corvid coalition of Rook, Jackdaw and the odd Carrion Crow. The Jackdaws may well be masterminding the whole show. They peer down at you from almost every chimney, and also occupy holes in trees. In winter they roost communally with their cousins, the Rooks. When the Jackdaw of Rheims stole the Cardinal’s ring, in the Reverend Richard Harris Barkham’s classic early-Victorian doggerel poem, he must have brought it here, to Avebury. Later, the Jackdaw was granted plenary absolution and canonised by the name of Jem Crow.
At the heart of Avebury stands the old tithe barn, 100 foot long with 30 foot rafters, a Grade 1 listed building which houses the museum that tells the story of the history of the Avebury stone circle and avenue. An imposing timber building, blackened and thatched, it is the centrepiece of the World Heritage Site experience. It also harbours an important bat roost – five species, notably a sizeable colony of Serotine bats. Outside lies a small pond in which Great Crested Newts breed in spring.
In 2013 two-thirds of the thatch was caringly replaced by Wiltshire master thatcher Ed Coney, using combed wheat reed, at a cost of some £100,000. Perhaps the work inadvertently upset the Jackdaws – perhaps because they wanted Norfolk reed thatch instead – for six months later some of them started pulling the new thatch to bits, randomly pulling out straws and idly discarding them, often in full view of the visiting public. Thatchers, ornithologists, and even corvid PhD experts were consulted, but no rhyme or reason could be found for the birds’ behaviour. There was no obvious food in the thatch and few, if any, straws were being used for nesting material as jackdaws build primarily with twigs. Theories rampaged across Wiltshire: perhaps the straws held a small starch nodule, or the avian equivalent of a legal high – ergot perhaps, or even a Jackdaw equivalent of Viagra?
Various deterrents were deployed – wooden and plastic owls and falcons, spinning decoys from allotments. All worked for a day or two, only. The new thatch was even sprayed with something nasty, then double-netted with a fine mesh. All was to no avail.
Shooting was grudgingly examined, as a distant option. At this point one of the National Trust’s expert naturalist advisors became particularly unhelpful, stating that he was on the side of the Jackdaws, and adding that a license would be required from Natural England, which might only become available if the protected bat roost came under threat from Jackdaw demolition. Shooting would not have been practical anyway, for the building and its environs are in constant use during the day and the culprit birds were only active in broad daylight, not during the quiet crepuscular hours.
Eventually an extra layer of protective mesh was stretched out several centimetres above the standard thatch-retaining wire which places the thatch beyond Jackdaw beak reach, at least for the moment, until the new wire sags. This over-netting does, though, rather resemble a hair net and may not be altogether appropriate for a Grade 1 listed building.
The truth is that Jackdaws take over buildings. Visit any ruined castle or one of Henry VIII’s dissolved monasteries and you will find that the ruins are run by Jackdaws – from Tintern Abbey in the Wye valley up to Fountains Abbey near Ripon in Yorkshire, across and beyond. They peer down at you from twig-filled nooks and crannies in the ancient walls, aloof and unyielding. Perhaps it was they who dissolved the monasteries in league with the king: he wanted the dosh and a divorce, the jackdaws wanted the buildings. Deal. But in early May the Jackdaws give us presents, for fragments of their exquisite blue and mottled egg shells can be found at the foot of the ruined walls, no two pieces looking alike.
There are times when nature simply runs rings round us, or even takes the proverbial mickey. Ask the Jackdaws, they know.
I find it really hard, almost impossible to be sure I am looking at Crow rather than Rook. Rooks are a social bird, living in rookeries. They are bigger than Crow, and their Craa Craa call is of a lower pitch (apparently!). I always see, or hear a Crow whenever I visit London, even if I can’t locate a tree. And, any visitor to the Tower of London will know of their much larger cousins…
Bill Bailey, in his Remarkable Guide to British Birds says this:
The way to distinguish a crow from a rook is by its deep black bill. The rook’s tends to be smaller and paler. Also, rooks like hanging out in a group, whereas the crow is often seen on its own, or maybe in pairs. BONUS FACT: In an experiment conducted a couple of years ago, crows demonstrated that they could pair up matching picture cards when it led to a food reward.
Jays are shy woodland birds though you may still see them in urban environments? The name in Welsh for a Jay is Sgrech-y-coed which literally translates to Screech of the Woods: a very apt name!
If it wasn’t for the Jay we wouldn’t have the huge number of Oak trees in this country – for they bury acorns in autumn, just as,the grey squirrel does, but for years before those mammals were introduced into the UK, and in much greater numbers, even now.
Jay is one of those British birds that make us wonder if it has escaped from a zoo – it looks so exotic – its bottom half is that of a magpie, its front like something from Australia.
When I lived in Wolverhampton I saw Magpies every day – another of the Corvid family and in honour of this I will give them their separate blog, later in the year. Blackbirds too…
The book CROW by Ted Hughes, is probably and will always likely to be the most famous collection of poems on Crow. Here is an extract from a website called ‘Tony’s Book World’ – Tony writes this: “ The poems in “Crow” contain some of the harshest, blackest, bleakest images ever put into poems.” I don’t know if you agree… personally, I love it:
Crow Blacker Than Ever By Ted Hughes
When God, disgusted with man,
Turned towards heaven,
And man, disgusted with God,
Turned towards Eve,
Things looked like falling apart.
But Crow Crow
Crow nailed them together,
Nailing heaven and earth together-
So man cried, but with God’s voice.
And God bled, but with man’s blood.
Then heaven and earth creaked at the joint
Which became gangrenous and stank-
A horror beyond redemption.
The agony did not diminish.
Man could not be man nor God God.
Crying: “This is my Creation,” Flying the black flag of himself.
Tina Cole has alerted me to this Crow poem by Christopher Reid.. here is just the start: to hear him read it, and see the full poem go to the Poetry Archive here
The Crow by Christopher Reid
No, he’s not. He’s just a crow,
doing his crow thing:
black garb, harsh cry,
stiff strut. Yet it’s his lot
to appear less bird
Here, is my attempt at a Crow poem, written in December 2016:
Crraa crraa crraa by Nadia Kingsley
This carrion crow
with large brain to body ratio
is black from tip to toe
prefers to be solo
or with its life-long mate.
One of a million pairs,
it will bomb buzzards,
drops stones –
anything to protect
its speckled blue eggs.
See it perched
like a tree-top sentinel,
see its wide messy nest,
see it stride, see it hop,
see it glide – with fingers spread.
Humans and their myths: say
they neglect their young,
say they are a bad omen
and a harbinger of death.
I ask its opinion –
Crraa crraa crraa, it says.
And here is …
The Language of Crows by Tina Cole
There is a daily murder on my lawn,
a gang who swagger, hop skipitty hop,
squabble & squawk
in self-important tones.
They are the ‘Jets’
sleek and shiny suited
defending short lived turf
their noise is cackle speak.
One steals away a prize,
a delinquent mob
of beak stabbers.
These are their behaviors;
smash & grab, flap & fall
& their language
Here is some “Corvid Art” I have found online:
For more information on Crows and other Corvids, here are a few interesting links:
This Blog is part of a series of Blogs that are part of the Fair Acre Press project – DIVERSIFLY: everyday encounters with the birds of Britain’s towns and cities. For more details on the project go here