Wednesday, 11 March 2015


‘We cut over the fields………straight as the crow flies’
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist,1838.

One of my first meaningful memories of birds from childhood is that of the rookery at the end of my aunt and uncle’s garden in Cumbria.  It is the sound of the birds calling rather more then the sight of them that stays in my mind.  I was still a schoolboy as the trees were taken down so that a large barn could be erected, which brought about the demise of the rookery.  Now the barn and the farm that it was part off have gone and housing is to be/being built.  It’s perhaps interesting that whilst only a two mile walk across fields to the cliff tops overlooking the Solway would bring me to St Bee’s Head and colonies of seabirds, it is the sounds of the Rooks at the bottom of the garden I remember best of all.  The village has altered greatly since my childhood and where once platforms used to support milk churns early in the morning, and where I used to sit occasionally later in the day, this area became driveways for rather expensively built housing some years ago.  Birdlife has probably changed greatly over the years in a village that once housed five farmsteads and now has none.  Farming then was of course far less intensive than it is now.  Certainly on more recent visits I have noted that it is the Collared Dove that seems to dominate the scene, a bird that would not have been present at all on my very first visits to the area.  Whilst the Collared Dove has made natural headway, most losses including the rookery, were induced by human interference and loss of good habitat.  Although the rookery did not survive it did give me a taste of birdlife and possibly influences my liking of crows and many crow species have adapted well to life amongst us humans. 

Many years later when my cousin moved into her own home on the cliff edge I discovered new birds around her garden including nesting Little Owls in the red sandstone quarry within feet of the fence.  I learnt then that Little Owls were often faithful to a nesting site as they were there for years, and maybe a later generation still are.  They were never unduly concerned about the large wagons that would churn up the narrow road whilst occasionally arriving to collect sandstone slabs, later exported around the world including the United States of America, nor were the birds alarmed unduly by the odd explosion in the quarry.  I also discovered Ravens flew along the cliff edge and passed my cousin’s home, and to this day they probably gave me my closest ever encounters with Ravens.  I’ve had some very good sighting from this area and have watched Kestrels directly below me hovering above sea, Barn Owls at cliff nesting sites and Peregrine Falcons carrying prey back to their nest site, and of course many seabirds, some of which nest at St Bee’s Head RSPB Reserve.  There’s a wonderful small pebble beach here with a sandstone cave, from which you can look up to the bird colonies.  It used to attract the locals during the summer when I was a child and I still have photos of gatherings there.  It isn’t an easy climb down there through a gut in the cliff, so if you visit these days, what ever the time of year, you’re more than likely to be on your own.  How times change. 

So yes, I like corvids and don’t feel that they are a bird to be taken for granted and simply passed by.  I’m not however naïve, so I do understand how troublesome they can be to those who work the land or have livestock.  Having a brother who was a shepherd helps me take a balanced outlook on wildlife and its affects.  It was with great pleasure I received a print in recent days sent to me by friends Hilary and Kelsey.  Kelsey I know is quite an artist and he had painted this Raven at the Great North Museum; Hancock, (still the Hancock Museum too many of us) from a specimen held at the museum.  The print is and was I think meant to be a reminder of the Raven Sam and I found at Prestwick Carr earlier this year.  The Raven which I believe Hilary also saw briefly. It was also perhaps a marker of one or two difficult recent events of a personal nature.

Copies of photos of the bay near St Bee's Head, taken in the 1950s I believe.  Now in my possession, they were taken by a relative (a keen photographer) of my uncle and on the wall of his mother's home during my childhood and until shortly before she died.  The top photo shows that the bay was then frequented by the locals and the boy in the front right of the image is now likely approaching his seventy-fifth plus year if still alive.

When I moved to my present home in the 1970s there was a flourishing rookery within five minutes walk of my house.  I was beginning to take a keener interest then in birds and nature in general and it could be said that the rookery was my first introduction to patch birding, something not taken up seriously until some time later.  Sadly this lateness has meant that I missed some species that once were present in the area including Corn Buntings which Sam reminded me had bred on Killingworth Moor in the 1980s.  Never the less I took interest in the rookery, usually at the beginning of the year when it was at its most active, and I’m again sad to say that now it is now no more than a scattering of  nests and nothing like it once was.  Rooks are still commonly seen on the grass verges near and in my estate, as their bills search for prey, and the sound of their companion Jackdaws is often heard.  I think Jackdaws are very attractive birds and I’ve found the occasional Nordic Jackdaw in the area.  I’m aware of the reluctance by some authorities to accept Nordic Jackdaws and of the reasons for this, but I’m happy I’ve seen them and that is what matters.  I did watch a partially leucistic Rook in this area in more recent years and it became quite clear that it was not accepted by its peers and remained by itself until one day it had simply disappeared.  I learned many years ago that leucism in the primaries and secondaries of these and presumably other birds can be caused by inadequate nutrition when young and that if the bird then goes on to gain an appropriate diet the leucistic plumage will be replaced by normally coloured feathers. 

The patch is still blessed with a fly over of mixed flocks of crows just before dusk, especially noticeable in winter as they fly towards their roost site.  The sky often blackens with them as they fly directly over my home.  I’m always reminded of Mark Cocker’s Crow Country tales of the flocks in East Anglia which no doubt put on a significantly better show than our local crows, although the locals behave in a similar manner as to Mark Cockers description, with the birds often collecting at a pre-roost site between West Moor and the old Findus site.  When I was involved with arrangements for the RSPB Local Group I had wanted to organise a stay in Norfolk so we could visit Buckenham Marshes and watch the crow roost, as well as take in everything else the area offers.  I went as far making arrangements with local birders in the area, so as not to cause disturbance and I was very grateful for their advice and help.  I was taken aback when there was little interest for such a stay and winter birding in Norfolk!  On reflection, it was at that point my interest in such groups began to quickly wane.  I take comfort that Mark Cocker, I and most keen birders would be excited by the idea.  Crow Country is well worth a read if there is anyone out there who hasn’t done so already.

To return to the Raven, my first real understanding of just how important crows and Ravens in particular are in culture and mythology was awakened when I visited British Columbia.  This period marked my first trip outside of Europe and also marked the beginning of a new instability around the world as the Twin Towers came down whilst I was watching Orcas, Grizzly Bears and Black Bears from a boat in the waters of the Coastal Mountains.  A stay in British Columbia gave me plenty of opportunity to pick up information as to the importance of Ravens in the culture of the people of the First Nations in North America.  How the Raven was seen as wise, and at times both a trickster and deceitful was talked about often.  I stayed on in Vancouver for a couple of days and visited the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia which contains much First Nation artwork in which the Raven plays a prominent part, not least in totems of which there are many on display.  The museum also contains a giant sculpture by a man of the name of Bill Reid made from a large block yellow cedar wood.  It depicts how the Raven coaxed the first men from a giant clam shell (I need to read up as to how the first women appeared).  It’s a great piece of work and amusing too, with I seem to remember at least one bare backside sticking out of the clam.

Depicting the Raven as wise is indeed no coincidence as corvids in general are in relative terms intelligent birds with a large brain.  Practical experiments have shown this to be the case and at least one species, the New Caledonian Crow, has been seen to use and adapt tools (adapted from vegetation) to catch insects.  This tool making has been seen to be replicated by the birds with wire and hooks in a laboratory setting.  It is rather reminiscent to the manner in which primates have been seen to use tools.

Ravens and crows take quite a role in many cultures around the world, including our own.  The ancient Greeks associated crows with the God Apollo, whose unfaithful mistress, Coronis, is the source of the word corone, Greek for crow and the modern scientific name for the Carrion Crow Corvus corone.


  1. An excellent read!

    It made me reflect on my earliest awareness of the wildlife around our family home.

    I enjoy watching Corvids, they have very interesting social behaviour.

    1. Thank you Andrew.
      I was brought up in the East End of Newcastle, but suppose my frequent visits to West Cumbria provided a wider spectrum of nature as a youngster.