Like people, some birds are territorial by nature, while others flock comfortably together. Sometimes there is safety to be had in numbers, in knowing your neighbours, even when you live cheek-by-jowl with them.
Every year, in the same south-eastern corner of the woods, dozens of rooks gather, and build their nests high up in a dense cluster of sycamore crowns. Seen just now from a distance in silhouette – before the trees’ leaves have fully unfurled themselves – each nest resembles a tangled bundle of cells in the complex map of a nervous system.
The rookery cannot be missed. Piles of sticks and twigs – having either fallen accidentally from the nest mid-construction, or been rejected as inferior, inadequate material for the project – litter the ground beneath. Rook-shit spatters the emerging leaves of understorey plants, and threatens the heads of joggers and dog-walkers using the footpath curling by below. The noise, the endless chatter, is hard to ignore.
In flight, rooks and crows can be difficult to distinguish. On the ground, and at close quarters, rooks are identifiable by their greyish bills and spectacled appearance, their more upright, striding gait. I find them less sinister-looking than any of their corvid cousins, than crows in particular, who seem able only to scowl. In fact, I find there’s something almost professorial about rooks. Were they to have hands instead of wings, you could imagine them clasped together behind their backs as they strolled earnestly around some college quad, beaks bowed deep in thought. In reality, they’re more commonly seen loitering alongside the main road leaving town, looking for worms, or grain discarded by passing trucks, at the edge of the withered grass. They’ll eat carrion – roadkill – too.
But why that particular spot for a rookery, that cluster of trees? And nowhere else? They’ve presumably been nesting there for many, many years, well before the housing estates that now circle the woods were built. Since those trees reached maturity, perhaps, and became strong enough to support their hefty nests?
A theory I’ve come up with is that they’ve chosen the corner of the woods that gets the most sunlight without being over-exposed to the prevailing westerly winds. But it’s only a theory. Maybe it was the first spot they came to? Maybe they just like the view?
Whatever the reason for it, watching the skies overhead when the rooks return to their nests to roost in the evening is some spectacle. It may not be quite as breath-taking as the murmuration rituals performed by starlings before they roost (something I have been fortunate enough to witness before), but there is a peculiar music to the calls the rooks make to one another as they circle the canopy, especially on a still day when the noise echoes through the trees. Sometimes, they will all appear to have settled for the night, when a noise or other disturbance sends them airborne again, shrieking. They fly round and round en masse, until the message is communicated that all is well, and roosting – properly this time – can begin anew.