Author Michael Blencowe
The first sound that a newborn rook hears is other rooks. Lots of them. It’s a sound that will surround it every day for the rest of its life. Rooks are one of our most sociable birds. They’ll live, love, feed and fight together – team players from the rookery to the grave.
Each morning as I walk over the bridge by Lewes railway station I look up at the community of messy twig nests above – my local rookery.
There’s a definite pleasure to be had from watching a rookery – the sort of pleasure you get from pulling up a deckchair and watching a neighbour hard at work. High in the trees the rooks are busy: carrying twigs back to their nests, building their nests, stealing twigs from their neighbour’s nest when he’s not looking, getting into a fight with the neighbour when they’re caught. It’s a tree-top soap opera.
It can be easy to dismiss them as unattractive, plain black birds with a croaky call that sounds like Tom Waits coughing up hairball. But look closer and you’ll see the rook’s plumage contains a hidden beauty – an iridescent sheen which gives the bird a flash of exotic purple and green. Loose feathers hang low to their knees like a pair of baggy shorts, the sort favoured by teen skateboarders or men who listen to The Foo Fighters.
Sure, that raucous ‘KAAH’ may not rival the nightingale’s song but the communal cacophany gives constant reassurance to every individual rook that it belongs within the team. That call also helps rooks communicate the best local areas for feeding; the discovery of a worm-filled field is noisily shared to ensure that all can join in the feast.
This teamwork is one way to tell them apart from their similar looking but anti-social relative the carrion crow. Any rook on its own is a crow. If you see a group of crows they’re rooks. Try it – it works (most of the time!).
Outside the nesting season and away from the rookeries the birds gather each evening to roost. Local rooks travel over the landscape in squadrons and converge to form a super-flock of hundreds or even thousands of birds. Jackdaws, their smaller relatives, join in the party and this black cloud whirls across the sky, a crazy, cackling , cawing celebration of all things crow. As winter draws to an end this nightly ritual dissipates and rooks return to their rookeries, start collecting (and stealing) twigs and prepare themselves for the arrival of another generation of comrades in baggy shorts.
While I’m watching the Lewes rookery, I glance down from the railway bridge to platform two and see the crowd of commuters awaiting the London train. People all living similar lives but without any interaction whatsoever between them. Sometimes you’ll catch them looking up at the wonderful chaos of the rookery above and no doubt wondering what it’s like to never feel alone.
Find out more about Lewes wildlife