There is something primeval about crows and ravens, which is probably why they often get a bad rap in fiction. They are often portrayed as the harbingers of bad tidings and connected in some way to evil. And when we are not seeing them as some sort of malign influence, we ignore them—they are, after all, plentiful and not beautiful, unlike kingfishers or peacocks.
But there is a lot more to these birds, and using them as a projection of our fears does them a grave injustice. The corvid family—which includes crows, raven, rooks, magpies, jays and many others—are not only the most intelligent among birds but also among animals. They are self-aware, recognizing themselves in mirrors (which most animals can’t), and able to use tools. This intelligence is one of the reasons that I have been fascinated by them for a long time.
So it was only a matter of time before I picked up this book. Mark Cocker is a nature writer who has been following roosting rooks near his home in Yare Valley, Norfolk. His obsession with rooks started almost casually. Lying in bed, half-awake in the early morning, he had got used to listening to their cries as they flew over his house, “the notes clattering on to the road and the rooftops of the village like flakes of tin”. Then one afternoon, at dusk in November he caught sight of a long silent procession of rooks and jackdaws flying to a roost in the valley. He decided to go looking for the roost, and was enthralled.
The book starts with him watching for the evening roost. The rooks and jackdaws arrive in huge numbers—there are often 20,000 birds or more in a flock—and settle noisily on the fields in a “vast, undifferentiated mass”. As the sun goes down and the light disappears from the sky, a hush falls upon the flock. There is not a sound. No one has been able to figure out why this happens, but it happens every sundown. Then a group of rooks heads for the trees. This is the signal the others have been waiting for. The sky is suddenly filled with the rooks and their cries, moving like “a gyroscope of tightly packed fish”.
The mass of birds also touches deep within Cocker. The swirls of birds in the sky are “like inkblot tests drawing images out of my unconscious. … the flock blossoms into an immense night flower”, stirring “something edgy into my senses”.
With this beautifully written scene, Cocker lays out all the elements of the book: the naturalist’s perspective on the behaviour of the birds; the sheer beauty and wonder of the spectacle; and the way it takes him back into himself, into an almost meditative state.
I’m not going to go into all the things I learned from this book but I will share one. The difference between rooks and crows: rooks are sociable creatures, moving in vast numbers and sharing everything, including sources of food. Crows are solitary and fiercely territorial creatures. So when you see a solitary crow, it’s a crow; more than two means they’re rooks.
This book is a journey that Cocker takes you on. He approaches the birds both as a naturalist and the effect they have on him. I was expecting something more straightforward, but thoroughly enjoyed this—the writing was beautiful (I have been reading his columns in the Guardian Weekly, so I was expecting that) and the indirect way he approached his subject, oddly enough, made it more interesting. All in all, a pleasure to read. I’ll end with a quote from Mark Cocker that sums it up:
“This book is all about that moment, about the ritual and the elements of the natural world—the light, the environment, the birds, myself—which create it.”