Saturday 21 September 2019

Sentenced to die by a rook 'tribunal'

Country Matters

ROUGH JUSTICE: Were crows victims of a bird parliament? Photo: Barry Batchelor/PA Wire
ROUGH JUSTICE: Were crows victims of a bird parliament? Photo: Barry Batchelor/PA Wire

Joe Kennedy

When I randomly discharged a shotgun into an incoming flock of crows one evening I was taken aback at the reaction when one fell to the ground.

I hasten to add that I no longer shoot.

I have written about the death of a hare and hearing an almost human cry (like James Stephens and the snared rabbit) which had such an effect that I sold my gun and rifle and henceforth 'put up' birds with a walking stick while bog tramping with a springer spaniel.

The particular fallen crow's companions that day immediately set up a raucous chorus of calls and began swooping over the feathered remains and the human below that had needlessly killed their pal.

Those birds were not afraid of me and were mobbing to drive me away. I could almost feel their anger, and had a sense of danger, as I made my prompt departure, and wondered at my folly.

Why had I done this? I had been awaiting an evening flight of wood pigeon coming in to roost. I had pulled a trigger out of boredom. The pigeons were for the freezer. The unlucky crow was a waste of a cartridge.

This memory of more than 25 years ago was rekindled by a curious anecdote of the naturalist and writer Mark Cocker about his father in rural England. It was about rooks and bird death, but totally different.

A friend of his father's, driving through a countryside of wide panoramas, noticed a gathering of rooks which formed a wide circle in an open field.

At the centre of the ring were two or three crows apparently being scrutinised by the other birds surrounding them. The man drove on.

Curious about the birds' assembly he resolved to have a closer look on his way back. This he did, pulling up at the now empty field, puzzling at what had attracted the birds there.

He walked towards the spot where the gathering had been and was astonished to see several black-feathered corpses on the grass.

Mark Cocker relates in Crow Country (Jonathan Cape): "The victims were covered in death blows, wounds rained down with that bone-hilted pickaxe bill, and all the more shocking for having been inflicted by their own kind."

What could that have been about? Had this been a bird 'parliament', a gathering of winged creatures like humans debating the fate of some wrong-doers among their number?

Once I had experienced something similar with magpies where a number were attacking and chasing a single bird, diving and pecking at it as it tried to escape, scuttling for shelter because its wings were damaged.

The group flew off when I approached, clapped hands and shouted, the victim seeking refuge beneath my parked car.

The following morning, as I opened the car door, the bedraggled bird emerged from its well-hidden perch on top of a wheel beneath a mudguard on my elderly Citroen 2-CV.

It fled back into garden cover, too weak and broken to fly. There was no sign of its persecutors.

Sunday Independent

Editors Choice

Also in Life