Rook

The Rook is a bird embedded within our rural landscape and its presence can be seen in the literature and oral traditions of generations of rural inhabitants. The colonial, tree-top nests, so active at the very start of spring, stand testament to a species that has adapted to changing times. While not necessarily an easy bedfellow, the Rook quite rightly acts as a totem for our agricultural heritage.

Rook by John Harding

Rook or Crow?

For those whose acquaintance with the Rook is merely a passing one, there is a tendency to lump the species in with Carrion Crow and Raven; all are large and black and lack obvious features by which the casual eye can secure an identification. While there is something in the country saying, which infers that a single black bird will be a Carrion Crow, and a group of black birds will be Rooks, identification is less challenging than it might at first appear. The steep forehead and peaked crown of a Rook, together with the blue, purple and green iridescence to the body and wings feathers, provide useful pointers, as Su Gough explains on the BTO Bird ID video on crows. That country saying does, however, hint at the more colonial nature of Rook society, the birds typically nesting, feeding and roosting together. Crows are territorial during the breeding season and so are far less likely to be seen in large gatherings at that time of the year.

Communication

Rooks exhibit a number of different display and signalling behaviours, no doubt because they live in close proximity to one another. Many are used to communicate the status of an individual or to advertise ownership of a particular nest. Bowing and tail fanning, typically accompanied with much calling, are a feature of the breeding season, when quarrels become more commonplace. Display is an important behaviour because it helps to resolve conflict and support social status without the need for conflict which could prove physically damaging. Other behaviours are used to reinforce the ‘pair bond’ that exists between a female and her mate, a bond that can last for many years – bird ringing has revealed that a Rook may live for 20 years or more.

Rooks do particularly well within the pastoral landscapes of
Ireland, as this map from Bird Atlas 2007-11 shows.
Relative abundance of Rook during the breeding season,
2007-11. (Click to enlarge)

Bright birds

There is no doubt that Rooks, like many other members of the crow family, are bright birds, quick to recognise opportunities and to take advantage of them. The BTO’s Garden Ecology Team are attempting to find out how clever Rooks are by asking the public to take part in the Garden Rook Survey. This resourceful nature can see Rooks exploit feeding opportunities within gardens that may not be available to other birds. Rooks have even been observed to hauling up bird feeders hanging from a branch on a bit of string. By pulling with its bill on the string to lift the feeder a few inches and then standing on it, a Rook may gain access to food that was otherwise out of reach. Rooks are not always welcome at garden feeding stations because they can arrive in numbers and make short work of food put out for other species. They can also damage crops and this brings them into conflict with landowners, who may use a range of measures to scare or control the birds.

Out and about

Being an early nester, with the first eggs usually laid at the end of February, the last of the season’s young should be leaving the nest in early July. Young birds lack the bare, white-coloured face of the adults and it is these individuals that are most likely to be confused with Carrion Crow. This means that July is a good month for trying out your identification skills, especially as you are likely to have both adult and young Rooks feeding together.

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