Puppets of the spring sky

PUBLISHED: 09:39 19 May 2014 | UPDATED: 09:39 19 May 2014

Rooks arriving at roost at Buckenham Norfolk, credit David Tipling

Rooks arriving at roost at Buckenham Norfolk, credit David Tipling


“April”, says Eliot, “is the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” As the landscape comes into flower, breeding is much on the mind of many creatures this month, especially those which have braved the British winter and which by April’s longer days and less cold nights are flooded with spring hormones. Most obvious among the bird breeders now are the rooks whose cities of spiky twig nests adorn still-bare trees all over the county.

Unjustly, rooks are the least appreciated birds in all the fields, fens, skies and skeins of Norfolk. Most of us see ungainly black birds or, worse yet, don’t see them at all, dismissing them as just-rooks.

The rook is black, yes, but its black is the lustrous blue-black of a witch’s cloak or of the eastern horizon on a frosty night, minutes before dawn. A rook’s conversation is fine too. While for much of the year it confines its thoughts to its caws, at its colonies in April it launches into throaty rolls and trills, worthy of the wildest, mountain-hardy raven, and a marvellous vocabulary of clicks and croaks.

While deciphering their varied voices is enchanting, the true joy of rooks comes from watching them in flight. With their long, angular wings – quite different from the bulging muscularity of a crow’s – and their slim, round-ended tails, rooks fly with the gravity-defying buoyancy of bonfire scraps whipped up above a blaze. Coming home to their colonies they soar, they surf the sky in pairs with their wings set in lazy Vs, they tumble and they spin, reminding all the other birds that they alone own the air as their element.

Rooks are the playful string puppets of the spring sky. As Roger Deakin writes in his thoughtful, beautiful Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees, “A good deal of the rooks’ circling, gliding flight seemed to be nothing other than joyful orisons with no apparent destination in the fields”. In the same vein, in T H White’s The Once and Future King, the young Arthur tells of his great liking for rooks: “I love the way they enjoy flying. They don’t just fly, like other birds, but they fly for fun. It is lovely when they hoist home to bed in a flock at night, all cheering and making rude remarks and pouncing on each other in a vulgar way.”

Vulgarity, humour, lustrous night-black plumage, intelligence, ventriloquy and joy: A rook possesses them all. Watch rooks this month as they strut in feather-legged pairs through the fields, bowing heads and raising tails like would-be peacocks. Watch them as they flap home to their rookeries, bearing twigs in their dagger-dark beaks. Listen as they tell tales from the tall trees in their language of lusty croaks and exuberant squeaks. An April spent with rooks is an April worth spending.

Read more about Norfolk’s wildlife at www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk

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