Rook (Corvus frugeligus): Norfolk's most sociable bird.
SOME PEOPLE DON'T LIKE THE ROOK, I'm not sure why, they just don't seem to like them -- perhaps it's the way they look, the noise they make? -- I see them through different eyes and feel there is no stronger symbol of Norfolk's bucolic landscape than witnessing multitudes of these black-feathered acrobats tumbling and falling in mid-air across freshly ploughed fields, their hoarse, croaking vocalisations echoing in the moist, autumnal air, freshly scented with the smell of the turned soil.
It is fair to say that identifying rooks from crows, or even jackdaws for that matter, is no easy task for the unfamiliar eye, all three birds purveyors of black plumage and occupying similar habitats for much of the year. However, rooks are extremely gregarious birds and regularly mix with jackdaws in large feeding flocks or even share communal roosts, and it is here that the larger rook can be easily separated from its cousin. Differentiating them from the carrion crow is not so easy, although crows often keep to themselves in groups that rarely number more than a dozen animals. Ironically, for a bird so rooted to the countryside and wary of people, the best view we often get of the rook is at the busiest of locations -- the hectic roundabouts of our main roads or jostling motorway intersections. It is here that their grey, probing bill, iridescent purple-black plumage and baggy plus fours can easily be seen.
The social nature of the rook continues into its breeding habits, where the omnipresent rookeries so familiar across the Norfolk countryside become transformed in the early springtime. For much of the winter they are lifeless places, the naked branches of the trees supporting empty nests that resemble arteries clogged by fatty deposits when silhouetted against a tangerine sky. Peace is soon shattered however, the birds returning to repair damaged property during February; by the time March has reached us, the cacophony of noise around the breeding copse can be quite overwhelming as the air is filled with the constant cawing and squabbling of what might be several hundred birds -- some of Norfolk's rookeries are known to regularly hold between one-hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred nests in some years.
Rooks are shy and wary birds, always alert to possible danger and difficult to approach at the best of times, particularly so when gathered in large flocks. To view them for any length of time at close quarters is best achieved if they are accustomed to the constant comings and goings of people. Alluded to previously, churches with woods and tall trees close-by are regularly colonised by rooks and make an ideal area for study. For a thrill during the deep midwinter however, a trip to R.S.P.B. Buckenham Marshes must be on your agenda. The adjacent carr woodland is the favoured roosting site for tens of thousands of rooks and jackdaws; be prepared to wait until the bitter end though, as the birds do not move into their night time quarters until darkness has fallen.
'Rook parliaments' are part of countryside folklore where it is believed that wrongdoing birds are surrounded by their peers and brought to justice, most often from high in the treetops. This is most likely misinterpreted territorial behaviour where a young interloper has bounded into the keenly guarded space of its elders.
The rook, or church parson, as it is sometimes known -- a rural sobriquet courtesy of the bird's fondness of nesting close to churchyards -- will return to the same nest year after year, making suitable reparations to the loose pile of twigs that can be remarkably resilient to storm damage. Pairs bond for life and closely guard their platform of sticks from the prying eyes and bills of their neighbours; although extremely social, squabbling amongst your neighbours is commonplace for these corvids.
A rook pauses to lookout for possible danger amongst nearby vegetation before continuing to forage in the bare soil. With a bill made like a chisel, it can dislodge hard earth to locate hidden leatherjackets and wireworms.
Sitting above their freshly renovated nest, a pair of rooks surveys the surrounding scene from their vantage point high up in the rookery. All around them is a hubbub of business and endeavour as others of their kind follow suit.
Rooks will return to the same woodland or stand of trees each spring to build-on or repair the previous year's nests. These rookeries can become quite large at times, containing more than 200 stick and twig structures.