Peter Theobald considers our feathered friend the rook; from tasty pies to their remarkable problem-solving skills.

Few birds divide opinion like the rook. On the one hand we have farmers, who often endure massive damage to crops at certain times of the year, and on the other, the people who love to hear the most quintessentially English bird going about its business. Certainly, no episode of Midsomer Murders would be complete without the background cawing of rooks.

Even farmers have a grudging respect for the rook when it is doing them no harm, and one gets the feeling that while rooks will certainly take eggs and young birds, they do not actively look for them, unlike other members of the corvid family, such as crows and magpies. Few countrymen have any regard for the latter, while secretly admiring the antics of the former.

Like all corvids, rooks are renowned for their intelligence, quite able to use tools to solve problems. In one experiment, a rook was placed next to a test tube half full of water. On the water floated an earthworm, but the water level was too low for the bird to reach it. Some pebbles were made available, and it did not take very long for the rook to work out that if it dropped the pebbles into the test tube, thus raising the water level, the worm would float to the top. I know some humans who wouldn’t be able to solve that problem!

They are also steeped in folklore, many people believing rook even bring good luck. It is said that if rooks abandon their communal nest site, a death is imminent. Also, if they build their nests high in the trees, you can look forward to a fine summer, but built low in the branches and you can expect a summer of wind and rain.

Social animals

So how do you tell the difference between a rook and a crow? An old country saying sums it up nicely, “If you see a rook on its own, it is a crow, but if you see a flock of crows, they are rooks.” This certainly applies at distance, but in the hand, they are easy to tell apart, rooks have a distinctive area of skin round the base of the beak, and crows do not. However, young rooks do not get the area of skin round their beaks until they are around six months old, leading to some confusion, fooling some shooters into believing they are killing crows, when in fact, they are immature rooks. In any case, rooks have a blue sheen to their feathers, quite unlike the black colouring of crows.

Rook breasts can be turned into a dainty dish fit for a king - or a village

Rook breasts can be turned into a dainty dish fit for a king – or a village

Rooks are very sociable birds, nesting in colonies, year after year. Nests are built from twigs broken off branches, rather than from the woodland floor, though they are not averse to robbing the material from neighbouring nests, if the owners are not guarding them. Three to five eggs are laid from early March, hatching after 16 to 18 days, with both parents ferrying food to the growing chicks.

I remember, a couple of years ago, glassing a field of laid barley for pigeons, and watching adult rooks flighting out from a nearby rookery, to break off an ear of barley, transporting it back to the youngsters who were all assembled on a small pasture. The damage to the crop was visible to the naked eye, and I asked the farmer if he would like me to address it, but the he said the joy of having a rookery in his yard, and the good that they did to his grassland, outweighed any damage to his barley.

Youngsters fledge after about 32 days, and it was a time of year when everyone who owned a firearm would assemble at the rookery to shoot the young birds before they were strong enough to fly away.

Timing was crucial; a few days too soon, and the birds would still be in the nest, a few days too late, and the whole lot would disappear after the first shot. May 12th was the chosen day, and the meat from the slain was to be made into traditional rook pie, enjoyed by the entire village. I’m not sure if this tradition continues in any part of the country, still less, if many people fancy eating young rook.

Fast learners

My own little wood hosts a small rookery of about 40 nests, but is also a roost for much larger numbers of mixed corvids, up to 1,000 strong. The only time these birds have caused me any kind of grief is when they have attacked the maize cover strips, soon after the cobs have formed. I have tried to discourage the roosting, by shooting them coming in, but the rooks quickly learn to arrive when it is almost too dark to see, in one massive flock, and I am reluctant to shoot the strips at a time of year when I am trying to encourage pheasants to use them. I have never managed to solve the problem, so basically, I have to grin and bear it.

Rooks were quick to take advantage of another modern farming phenomenon, the outdoor free-range pig units, as they can be seen following the feed trailers to thieve the pignuts before they go down the throats of the pigs. This is one area where serious numbers of rooks can do enormous financial damage, but is also one where an experienced team of decoyers can kill significant numbers of birds. I’m sure Tom Sykes will advise you on the best way to tackle crow-decoying tactics in his article (page 7), but suffice to say, it will be entirely different to a pigeon-shooting setup.

To conclude, I think that rooks are generally more loved than hated, but there are times, and situations, where their numbers have to be controlled.