Girton village website - Nature

Girton Birdwatch - May 2007

Red Kite Well, we hoped it would happen! The 2nd April saw a most welcome visitor to the village: a Red kite. This large, majestic and unmistakeable raptor was observed circling over the gardens between Northfield and Dodford Lane by Elizabeth Starling and her husband, before veering off South-eastwards towards the Woody Green area of the village. The same day, according to the Cambridge Bird Club's web-site, there was a Red kite reported over Fen Drayton; possibly the same bird. I read somewhere recently that re-introduced kites are initially reluctant to leave their new homes, but once on the move are enthusiastic colonisers. Let's hope that we'll soon be getting regular sightings in this area.

Talking of reading, I was enjoying a glass of red wine the other day: 'Rook's Lane', from Victoria, Australia, and turned my attention to the descriptive label on the back of the bottle. Now I don't know whether I'm pedantic (My wife says she knows!) or whether it was a typographical error, but the label read: 'Crows or rooks are common in the Australian countryside' (my emphasis). To me this wording implies that the two birds are one and the same. The label also pointed out that the vineyard took its name from the 'menacing existence of a large rookery' in the gum trees on the property (my emphasis). More on this later.

It's not surprising that rooks and crows are often confused with one another. They are, after all, both large and black (the crow is slightly larger) and members of the same family: corvidae (along with the Hooded crow, Jackdaw and Raven). However, there are marked differences between the two birds: the feathers on the rook's legs hang down like a pair of trousers while another classic distinguishing feature is the prominent 'bald' patch around the base of the adult rook's bill. Another good rule of thumb is that if you see a rook by itself, it's a crow, and if you see more than two crows together, they're rooks. This is not fool-proof! However, it emphasises the fact that rooks are highly gregarious birds, while crows are not colonial and are much less sociable.

The confusion between the two birds also finds expression in the rather loose terminology which has grown up to describe their behaviour and habitat. The scarecrow, for example, was developed to discourage the vast flocks of rooks which would descend on farmers' fields in search of slugs, snails, beetles, wireworm and other grubs (surely a 'good thing') and newly sown grain and emerging shoots (bad!). A similar confusion probably lies behind the expression: 'as the crow flies' which is a more appropriate description of the direct flight-lines taken by rooks to and from their roosting sites, than it is of the less dramatic, and slower, crow's flight.

Moreover, this imprecision is often perpetuated in confusion over place names. Crawley, for example - literally 'crow's wood' and Crowhurst - 'hurst', a wooded hill - were names more likely derived from the presence of rookeries, and not based on the existence of the more solitary crow's nesting places.

The ambivalence of British farmers towards rooks and the crow/rook confusion may not only be demonstrated in the regular employment of 'crow-scarers' in the past (usually young boys and old men) to keep rooks off the crops, but in the acceptance of rookeries as 'good luck', and as a source of food. The birds were once widely regarded as a good source of protein and served up as rook pie (they still are in some parts); while they were also believed to have medicinal properties, for example their livers were prized around Norwich as a remedy for rickets. Similarly, my wine label's reference to 'menacing' rookeries would seem to be perpetuating an ornithological confusion, embedded in folklore. In modern Britain and Ireland it is the crow, and not the rook, which is more usually regarded as the classic symbol of evil and portent of misfortune, and one would have expected that in Australia the crow's penchant for pecking out sheep's eyes and tongues would have engendered more opprobrium than the more benign activities of the rook.

One member of the crow family which we are unlikely to see around here nowadays is the Hooded crow (not to be confused with the Jackdaw). The Hooded crow (the 'Corbie' in Scotland) has a black head and chest, black wings and tail, while the rest of its body is a deep grey. It is usually found north of the Highland line in Scotland, although I have seen them at Easter in the Isles of Scilly and on the streets of Belfast. I mention them here because one alternative name for them is the 'Royston crow'. They were once extremely common on the downs of our near Hertfordshire neighbour, attracted by the winter casualties among the large sheep flocks once to be found there, and presumably they often strayed in this direction (the birds!). The Royston local paper: The Royston Crow is named not after the Carrion Crow but the Hooded crow, a picture of which still graces its mast-head.

My first Swallow of the season crossed over while I was walking the footpath from Girton to Histon on Friday 6th April, and there was a small flock of Linnets in the field behind the Recreation Ground on the 8th. Just looked at the Cambridge Bird Club website which reports another Red kite seen over Girton (10th April), which nicely complements the one which glided over our heads when visiting Wimpole Hall on the same day (three pm-ish).

Ken Sheard, Ken.sheard2 at ntlworld.com