Tuesday, 9 June 2009

It's Crow Time

I've mentioned before my liking for crows (see White Crows, Black Swans, Half and Half Sheep) . Well, here are a couple more, edging into the picture, so to speak.

Actually, these are both rooks, named "the food-gathering crow"(Corvus frugilegus) by Linnaeus -- what other sort is there? One of the smarter creatures on the planet. One of the things I love about rooks is the way they shape-shift from muttering derelicts, picking over waste ground for scraps and curiosities, to sleek aerobatic ninjas in co-ordinated squadron attack on any predator that appears in the sky overhead, with the emphasis on individual acts of daring. I have seen a rook pluck a feather from a buzzard's wing, like a Plains Indian warrior counting coup.

N.B. A "buzzard" in Britain is a medium-large raptor, Buteo buteo, not a vulture, a bird which has become increasingly common in urban settings. I first saw one in Southampton on my daughter's fifth birthday, circling directly overhead as she and her little friends partied in the back garden. Now I often see one from my office window, soaring high above Southampton Common.

But that was not as surprising as the sight of a pair of Red Kites (Milvus milvus) dipping and gliding over Reading railway station, as I travelled between Oxford and Southampton. Not so long ago, this bird was close to extinction, and my partner and I would count it a red-letter day if we glimpsed one of these beautiful birds in a remote corner of Mid-Wales. A reintroduction programme has seen them spread out of Wales and into the Midlands, and I've glimpsed them recently from motorways in Hampshire and Wiltshire.

Kites were once as common as crows, even scavenging the streets of London in Shakespeare's time. Their party trick is snatching up scraps from the ground while remaining on the wing, then acrobatically flipping the food from talon to beak. As Chaucer writes in The Knight's Tale:
We stryve as dide the houndes for the boon;
They foughte al day, and yet hir part was noon.
Ther cam a kyte, whil that they were so wrothe,
And baar awey the boon bitwixe hem bothe.
At Gigrin Farm, near Rhayader in Wales, you can get a real sense of how this must have been, as the farmer now runs a Red Kite Feeding Station, where every afternoon he chucks bucketfuls of dead chicks onto a field. The sky fills with (presumably) salivating kites, buzzards and ravens, just as they must once have congregated over a mediaeval battlefield:
Ravens, crows and kites
Fly o’er our heads and downward look on us,
As we were sickly prey: their shadows seem
A canopy most fatal, under which
Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, V,1
Then they descend, the aerobatics begin, and for an hour or so it's Show Time!

1 comment:

Struan Gray said...

One of the delights of living in Sweden is that some birds I learnt to regard as impossibly rare in the U.K. are common as muck here. Kites are one example - most times of year I can expect to see at least one if I take the trouble to pedal a little way out of town. in fact, I think the ones introduced at Harewood in Yorkshire came from round here.

They are good birds for wordies. 'Puttock' is the Old English name, and lives on as a surname in some parts. 'Gled' or 'glead' is the Norse-derived name in the Danelaw and in Scotland (modern Swedish uses 'glada').

If rooks had opposable thumbs we'd be in trouble. Don't be fooled by the macaroni trousers.