Farce or just bare faced cheek ...
by Ean Lawrence
In the solidarity common to the brotherhood of builders, a camaraderie that unites men – and, indeed, women - of disparate calibre, character and condition, rooks also curse their fate when they have to stop nest-building work because of inclement weather. Instead of the usual oaths and expletives that echo around a building site on such occasions, the rooks express their frustration in less explicit terms than their human counterparts: a less offensive chorus of ‘kaah-kaah’ emanates from the rookery as a storm approaches and threatens disruption and possible destruction; starting the process of building or refurbishing their penthouse properties in the tops of mature trees in late February/early March means that they can be susceptible to interruptions caused by the gales that frequently occur around the time of the spring equinox.
The rooks’ nests, which can number in the hundreds (sometimes, in a well-established colony, numbering in the thousands), are large cups of twigs consolidated with soil and lined with leaves, roots and moss, although a favourite addition or alternative to moss is wool. The female undertakes the construction of the nest with her complying mate supplying her with the materials for it; nests are often built on the foundations of older nests. Twigs are broken off trees, rarely being picked up off the ground, though delinquent rooks are not averse to filching what they consider to be a choice stick from a nearby nest. Although colonial, rooks have a strong sense of territory and such unsocial behaviour can result in the felonious individual being disciplined and driven from the flock; it is almost as if the offender undergoes a trial by a jury of its peers. However, they won’t hesitate to work together to deter an enemy that dares to attack the colony or one of its individual members.
The diet of the rook is omnivorous: grain, worms, insect larvae, slugs and snails, acorns, small mammals and birds. In urban landscapes they take advantage of the profligacy of humans, feeding on our scraps. In the countryside, they are most often seen in a group probing the short-cropped pasture searching for leatherjackets and succulent worms; they are also seen plodding along furrows in the wake of the plough, pouncing on the tasty morsels that are exposed by the action of the implement, all the while keeping a disdainful distance from the strident gulls that venture inland from the coast to demand their share of the brief bonanza. The rooks tolerate this encroachment into their domain as they, in turn, have been observed on the seashore feeding on insects and crustaceans.
The rook features prominently in folklore (one of the collective nouns for a group of rooks, along with a building, a parliament and a clamour, is a storytelling). A deserted rookery was seen by many as a portent of ill-fortune; the rookery at Blunderstone in Dickens’ David Copperfield had been long abandoned by the time David Copperfield senior and his innocently childish wife moved into the property, such that ‘the ragged nests, so long deserted, were gone’. Rooks were thought to escort the souls of the virtuous dead to heaven and, a much more mundane task, could forecast the weather: building high in the very tops of trees indicated a good summer ahead.
Amongst country folk - particularly in Somerset and Wiltshire and in Scotland - rook-pie is regarded as something of delicacy. Well, if not quite a delicacy then an ingredient for a pie for which you do not need a game licence to hunt. There is a recipe for such a pie in an edition of Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery dated 1860, and the popularity (if that’s the word) for rook as an ingredient increased during the culinary limitations of World War II. A smile is even brought to the face of a character in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers as ‘indistinct visions of rook-pie floated through his imagination’. And if you are thinking that rook-pie is a dish that has been - and, indeed, deserves to be - consigned to the dustbin of gastronomic history, think again: epicures that repair to the trendy restaurants of London have recently been offered rook-pie as a revived fashionable food to stimulate jaded palates. Perhaps the artist of the Whitsend kitchen might rise to such a bush-tucker challenge?
Observers of the habits of rooks have recorded that they show a level of intelligence that rivals that of primates and show that rooks are no bird brains. Over 2000 years ago, Aesop recounts the fable of the rook that quenched its thirst by throwing stones into a jug of water thereby raising the level of the liquid in the container until it was able to reach it and take a drink. So, don’t dismiss this resourceful and intelligent member of the Corvidae family as just another dull, noisy, black bird, and rejoice that the activity and noise in and around a rookery at this time of the year is a sign that spring is on its way.