Saturday, 12 June 2010


As a lad of ten or so, I used to help out on a farm on the borders of Hertfordshire and Essex. My father had bought it at the outset of the '39-'45 war; he had served in the First World War and knew the value of one's own food supply. He did not work the farm - it was let out - but it was a veritable heaven for an only child. I was allowed to do things that would drive the modern day health & safety fascists right up the wall. I was carrying and using a shotgun to bowl over rabbits. Riding the farm shire horses working alone in the fields. Moving cattle and even working with the farm bull. All of these activities brought me close to the world of nature where my main interest outside the newt season and inflating frogs till they burst, was the birds.
The main avian population was crows. Or were they rooks? I was told that if there was one rook, it was in fact a crow. Many crows together were most likely rooks. Close-up identification was easy. We had magpies and I knew by heart the superstitions about their gatherings. Even today I still mutter Good Morning to any two-tone crow to commiserate with it's loss.
I lost much of my birdy contact when I went into the Army. It was never a hobby or even a real interest; just being aware of what was going on around me in those pre-teen years. However, crows came back when we moved to Scotland. The idea about many crows being rooks had to be revised - there are some trees where one will regularly see a hover of crows totalling 50 or more birds. I wonder if the sheer numbers are due to the fact that crows are not shot? Whilst I used to be a keen eater of blackbird pie where the breasts of crows were mixed with the breast of pigeons, I doubt I would say a loud thank you now!
My home is in the middle of the village and we have communities of blackbirds all around us - close in. I've not recognised any rooks but in addition to the ubiquitous crow we get thrushes,starlings and even an occasional jackdaw. In the worst depths of the winter just past I started feeding the local birds - payback time I suppose. I live in a flat above a retail premises and their flat roof is directly level with my kitchen windows so yesterday's bread is easily disposed off. If I have been near a garden centre or such, the bread is supplemented by fat balls and mealy worms. Occasionally, seeds and special feed nuts get added.I suspect that the word has gone round the avian world that I am a soft touch as I recognise regular visitors to my CrowFam relief work. The only unwelcome would-be guests seem to be gulls occasionally swept inland by bad weather at sea. We have seen some aerial dog-fights as they are driven off - with prejudice as the CIA might say. I enjoy being able to watch crow family behaviour up close.
There is a ritual. One bird - mainly a male but not always will perch up overlooking the food on the roof. He has a bit of a shout and mum comes in and does a close fly-by to suss out any danger. She lands and is soon joined by her mate. Other birds will join them and this free for all seems to be tolerated with all accepted - saving the gulls. We have just seen the first youngsters. They follow on close to either Dad at his observation perch or Mum when she lands. They used to hop about in front of a parent with open beaks and were duly fed. This waiter service period did not last and they soon learned to peck away on their own benefit. Other blackbird parents seemed to tolerate teenagers - unlike the local park swans who seem to go out of their way to attacks the goslings of others.
Another thing I like is the way the crows move about in flocks. Geese are straight line V shape disciplinarians and starlings are magic in their feng-shui co-ordination. Crows? Bloody nightmare. Like a class of primary school kids when the final bell goes. They climb and dive, spin around in their own length, all do their own thing. I marvel they do not collide more often. I read that each bird positions itself with reference to six others but how the hell do they decide - or monitor - which six birds these should be? They're silly, happy, loud and messy. I love that and I love the way they make flying look fun. Not beautiful or graceful, but just wild zip and zoom dodge and dive enjoyment.
The ones that come to my roof-top bird table are relaxing but the aerial ballet shows out in the wider open space are exciting - so much so that I sometimes park up the car and just sit and observe. Doubtless, one day I'll be asked what I am doing at the edge of woodland with powerful binoculars in hand. I'll just have to respond with a selection of the answers I heard when asking such questions was part of my life. Maybe better to just explain that watching birds is what retirement is really all about?
I'm told that we are starting to get a significant population of ravens here in Scotland. Now - one of them on my food hand out would be a real treat.

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