Regardless of what you think of Natural England?s attempts to prevent control of the hooded crow under the terms of the general licences, it is not an area of our pest control legislation that has much impact, generally, on either gamekeepers or shooters in England. Hooded crows are totally absent from lowland England as breeding birds, and nowadays are only rare winter visitors to the east coast. In 2009, for example, there were just three reported sightings of hoodies in Suffolk, and only one in Kent, while none of the east coast counties managed to muster more than a handful of records. Most English counties failed to note any. Curiously, this wasn?t the case a century ago. When Claud Ticehurst wrote his History of the Birds of Suffolk (1932) he noted that the hooded crow is almost entirely a winter visitor to Suffolk and at this season of the year is common and well distributed throughout most of the country.
He goes on to explain that the Suffolk coast is one of the chief lines of entry of this species into England? The first to arrive in autumn come with great regularity about the end of the first week of October, while from the second week of October through to the third week of November, great numbers come in from across the North Sea. On arrival most of the birds go straight inland and many doubtless pass right on through the county.
Ticehurst recorded that the return migration took place between 15 March and 15 April, and that an odd pair or so of these birds remains to breed in Suffolk, probably every year, has been known for a long time. He gives a number of records of breeding pairs, dating from as far back as 1843, while at North Cove in 1922 and 1923 a pair bred and did an enormous amount of damage to game eggs. One of this pair was shot in 1924, but the survivor paired with a carrion crow until it, too, was finally disposed of.
Quite where all those hoodies that streamed into Suffolk each autumn eventually ended up is a matter of conjecture. They were apparently common in Cornwall in the 19th century, but are seldom recorded there today. Formerly regarded as uncommon winter visitors to Oxfordshire, none have been seen there for 30 years. They were reputedly common winter visitors to Royston in Hertfordshire, acquiring the local name of the Royston crow. When a Mr John Warren started a local newspaper in Royston in 1855, he called it the Royston Crow; it is still published to this day, though it?s many years since the last hooded crow was seen there.
Local lore had it that the hooded crows that crossed to England had come from Denmark, which may well have been true. In much of eastern England, the hoodie was known as the Danish crow or Denmark crow, while in Norfolk it was called the denman and in Suffolk the dunbilly.
By 1940, the invading army of hoodies that crossed the North Sea to England had declined to a mere trickle. William Payn wrote in his book The Birds of Suffolk (1962) that a decided decrease has been noted everywhere, and even on the coast the hooded crow is now quite scarce. However, he did record that one bird, ringed as an adult in East Prussia, had been shot at Somerleyton in December 1935.
The question that no-one seems to have answered is what stopped the hoodies from migrating to England each winter. It certainly wasn?t persecution, as this remains an abundant bird in both Scandinavia and eastern Europe, which is where the migrants came from. It seems that these northern populations became far more sedentary, giving up their migratory habits and staying on their breeding grounds all year. Rubbish dumps seem the most likely reason for such a marked change in behaviour, as the birds now had a plentiful and reliable source of food through the winter. If there?s food at home, then there was no reason to make a perilous sea crossing to England.
Historically, the hooded crow has always been regarded as a race of the carrion crow, and it was only in 2002 that the British Ornithologists? Union decided that there was a strong case for giving it full specific status. This was a somewhat contentious decision, and not one that everyone agrees with, even today. It could be argued that there?s a better case to make our native red grouse a full species, and not regard it merely as a race of the closely related willow grouse.
The crows themselves remain blissfully unaware of this change in their status, and there remains a hybridisation zone in Scotland where the two species meet. Intriguingly, the carrion crow is making a steady surge northwards.
At Kerloch Moor in Kincardineshire, carrions formed 59 per cent of the crow population in 1966, rising to 69 per cent in 1967, 72 per cent in 1968 and 100 per cent in 1981. Today the hooded crow is scarce or absent from much of eastern Scotland, though it remains common in the west, as it does in the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland.
Hybrid carrion x hooded crows are fertile, and show characteristics of both parents. One wonders whether anyone found guilty of shooting a hybrid in England would only be liable for half of the normal fine.