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Wildlife watch: the rook

David Chapman / 01 February 2016

Wildlife expert David Chapman looks at the superstitions surrounding the rook, a member of the crow family that's responsible for many familiar sayings.

Rook photographed by David Chapman

There are many superstitions surrounding members of the crow family and many of these can be traced back to the rook (Corvus frugilegus). For example the saying ‘as the crow flies’ is likely to refer to the rook which has a very direct flight, particularly when returning to its roost site in the evening.

Related: Six tips for a wildlife-friendly garden.

The scarecrow should actually have been called a ‘scare-rook’ because carrion crows don’t damage farmer’s crops. It is also debatable whether rooks do any great harm to crops, but it is they who are seen in great numbers feeding on farm fields. Rooks will eat seed but their favourite diet consists of grubs and insects, many of which are themselves detrimental to the crops.

Rooks are generally regarded with bad fortune, for instance a large group of rooks arriving in an area is said to be unlucky. 

However, well-established rookeries are deemed to bring good fortune and if the rooks should desert a rookery then a calamity is signalled.

The rookery is a wonderful place to observe the rook’s behaviour. Through the winter and early spring rooks add sticks to the nests of previous years. Unfortunately the easiest places to find these sticks are from the nests of neighbouring birds! It is said that if rooks build their nests high in the trees then we will have a good summer, if they build low down then it will be wet and cold.

The collective noun

The collective noun for rooks is a parliament, this strange term is a reference to rooks gathering in a huge circle around one or two individuals. Various historic references suggest that a fight between the birds in the middle sometimes breaks out or that the birds in the middle were attacked by those from the edge. The assumption is that the rooks in the middle are on trial and so this is their parliament.

Identifying rooks

The rook also has a bare white patch around the base of its bill. Its plumage, although essentially black, is quite iridescent and a little scruffy particularly around the top of its legs. The rook’s name is derived from its call, it was originally referred to as the ‘hroc’ which is a lovely rendition of one of its many vocalisations. Rooks are extremely talkative and have a range of metallic notes with sharp fragments as well as the more drawn out ‘craaaa’.

Find out what to plant to attract birds into your garden.


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