Rooks are unlikely to win any popularity vote. Consider the facts: black all over; they fly away at any human approach; make too much early morning noise around their nesting sites; to make matters worse, their family name of Corvids has unfortunate links with the events of 2020. And as if that was not enough, when skies will shortly be full of birdsong, the rook’s contribution will only stretch as far as a strangled quack. Folklore also links rooks with death and misery; it was said that plague doctors dressed in black robes with a grey peak in acknowledgement of the birds’ funereal appearance.
But there is much, much more to it than that. Winter is an ideal time to see some of their characteristics which, during bleak and dark months, engage the attention. Apart from birds around garden feeders, there is little to interest the local ornithologist at this season, but look upwards.
Rooks cluster in the branches of the tallest trees. Favourite perches include the high boughs of the tree beside Shipton tennis courts and the blackened oak opposite the Wychwood Inn. Early morning is the perfect time to see them, a dark profile stark against the grey of a winter’s sky. There they are, always on the topmost branches and twigs, quite still apart from frequent flicking of their tails. These lookouts of the sky often turn to face strong wind, relishing a breeze while missing nothing down below. There are no squabbles and, once the flock has all arrived in their small groups, little noise. Individuals arrive and leave periodically, but the flock retains its entity.
This is a nervous bird, one that shuns the bird table, preferring to watch from positions overhead, on the lookout for bread in particular. There is no rush to descend. When the coast is completely clear, they swoop down, clutch the morsel and rise again to a nearby branch to eat.
So far, so ordinary. But there is at least one notable feature of their behaviour that can lighten up the darkest of winter days. With seemingly no hint, the flock rises as one. A hundred birds or more take to the sky. They move as one, close to their starting point, whiffling and diving like a scattering of black rags against the dullness of the early dawn. This is not the grace of the starlings during their mass murmurations, but impressive none the less. And then they are gone, away to scavenge for insects and garden leftovers.
For the magnified version of this spectacle, readers would do worse than look upwards at the end of the day on the road from Shipton to Ascott. As daylight fades, the sky fills with hundreds of those wheeling black outlines and suddenly the world is a better place.