Tag Archives: carrion crow

Cowslips and corn buntings

When spring sprung this year it sprung in style and it was quite glorious. At that time of year the migrants return from distant lands and recolonise the countryside.

One bird that also returns to the farmland around Histon, but from closer to home, is the corn bunting (Emberiza calandra, Dansk: bomlærke). The corn bunting is a resident breeder in the UK, but as with most other species local to me it disappears from the fields round here as soon as the harvest begins, usually during the first week in August, not to return until March or April.

Male corn bunting taking flight from the top of the hawthorn blossom

The corn bunting is a lovely creature which is very distinctive when you know it. From a disatnce it looks like another random little brown bird, but it sits atop the wheat stems and the hedgerows calling and the call can be heard from many metres away. And like most little brown guys, when you see them close up they don’t appear quite so uninteresting.

A few months ago I got involved with a group of local people here who were working to prevent the development of this farmland for housing by our local council. The council said they had done an environmental survey and they provided us with a copy. It was an interesting insight into how these people work. The survey was commisioned by the agent the council had employed to manage the development (conflict of interest?), and it was undertaken the week after the harvest. The  conclusion in the survey was that there would be little or no damage to the local environment and no red listed or BAP (Biodiversity Action Plan) species would be affected. But I know from my recordings over the last five years that virtually all the wildlife – birds, mammals and insects – disappears as soon as the harvest starts. But my records, which I made available to the council,  also show that I have recorded 74 bird species there of which no less than 13 are red listed! Including the humble corn bunting.

The plan to develop the land was subsequently rejected and I hope my data played a part in the decision making process.

All the pictures in this post were taken on a sunny Sunday aftenoon at the end of April and another handsome bunting which frequents the drainage ditches and the hedgerows and was much in evidence was the reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus, Dansk: rørspurv).

Male reed bunting resplendent in his black cap and moustaches

Whilst the buntings, finches and other small passerines were announcing their availability from the top of the undergrowth a buzzard patrolled the skies above looking for prey:

Buzzard, Buteo buteo, (Dansk: musvåge)

And one of my favourite harbingers of fair weather to come is the cowslip:

Cowslip, Primula veris

Cowslip flowers were picked in the not too distant past to make wine with, but as it is no longer common this practise has waned. Despite that, the seed is now included in commercial wild seed mix and the cowslip can be seen in large numbers on seeded motorway verges. This one is not one of those though, it is one of thousands lining a drainage ditch on a farm in Histon.

A carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) was perched precariously on top of the hedge along the cowslip ditch and a hare was also close by and watching intently to make sure the dog kept a safe distance! The local hares seem fairly relaxed about the dog even though he’s a lurcher and can still move pretty rapidly. May be they can see that he’s too old to pose a real threat.

European or brown hare (Lepus europaeus)

This year seems to have been good for hares and I see them in many of the local fields in good numbers almost every time I venture there. There are also plenty of rabbits, but the hares are easily distinguished by their size, they are much bigger than rabbits, and the hares have very long ears with distinctive black tips which the rabbits don’t.

This was my first real sunny warm outing of the year and it gave me a good feeling that this year may turn out to be a good one for wildlife. And generally it’s living up to its billing. So far…

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Returning migrants and lots more besides

Occasionally, but fairly infrequently, it’s a struggle to find enough interesting nature to put together a post, and then every now and again so much happens that it’s difficult to fit it all in. Last weekend was one of the latter.

It started to get interesting as I was cycling to work on Friday morning, a bird caught my eye in a hedge outside work and first off I thought it was a bullfinch, which I’ve never seen on Cambridge Science Park before. But then I got a better look at it and it was immediately apparent it wasn’t a bullfinch, it had similar colours but in a different pattern, so I did a quick U-turn to get a better look. It turned out to be a black redstart male in full breeding regalia (Phoenicurus ochruros, Dansk: husrødstjert). He was magnificent but alas, because I was heading to work I was camera-less, so if you’ve never seen one, dig out a bird reference book and check him out, it’s worth the effort.

I went back to work on Saturday morning with my camera to see if he was still there but there was no sign of him so I carried on to Milton Country Park, on the northern edge of Cambridge. It was a bright sunny morning and I arrived there just after 8.30 and it was already warm. And it augured well because it turned into a real bird fest. I was hoping to see some returning migrants and as I got out the car I could hear chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger) calling in the trees around the carpark. The first migrant I actually saw was completely unexpected and turned out to be a pair of sand martins (Riparia riparia, Dansk: digesvale) which I haven’t seen for years. There were also swallows (Hirundo rustica, Dansk:  land svale) flying low over a lake and this is roughly the same time I saw the first swallow last year. Like swallows, sand martins also over winter in South Africa, but unlike swallows they nest in burrows which they excavate in sandy banks. There are some man made burrows for the sand martins at the country park but so far they’ve been ignored by the martins, but the occassional kingfisher pair have availed themselves of the opportunity.

Close to where the swallow was hunting is a small island with a tree on it where cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo, Dansk: skarv) can often be seen perched. This time there was a carrion crow (Corvus corone, Dansk: sortkrage) sat on top and a pair of common terns (Sterna hirundo, Dansk: fjordterne) were taking exception to its presence and were working as a team to dive bomb it:

A singleton…


… and in tandem

I almost felt a little sorry for the crow, but I’ve watched them terrorise so many birds, especially buzzards and other birds of prey, in a similar fashion that the sympathy was a tad less enthusiastic than it may otherwise have been.

A migrant which was present all over the country park was the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk), in one bush there were a minimum of four and possibly six or even more. They were squabbling away in the  bush presumably in the midst of a territorial dispute. I saw the first blackcap of 2012 a few weeks ago at Danbury Common in Essex during my unsuccessful mission to look for adders.


Blackcap male, the female is similar but easily distinguished because her cap is a rusty brown colour.

As well as the migrants the trees and bushes were full of the song of more familiar resident species such as the robin, blue tit, great tit, blackbird and wren. All were energetically vociferous, filling the air with a wonderful cacophany. And amongst these I caught a tantalising glimpse of a much less common species, the treecreeper (Certhia familiaris, Dansk:  træløber). Treecreepers are very aptly named and are fun to watch as they hunt insects in the crevices of tree trunks, spiralling upwards in a corkscrew pattern. A pair of sparrowhawk and a pair of buzzard were also busy performing their aerial courtship routines.

There were none of the winter ducks such as tufted duck (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: troldand), pochard (Aythya ferina, Dansk: taffeland), gadwall (Anas strepera, Dansk: knarand), teal (Anas crecca, Dansk: krikand) or widgeon (Anas penelope, Dansk: pibeand) on the water, they had all headed off north to their breeding grounds. But several birds including coot (Fulica atra, Dansk: blishøne) and greylag geese (Anser anser, Dansk: grågås) had chicks on the water:


Greylag geese with six chicks

I paused to try to get a shot of a great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus, Dansk: toppet lappedykker), all now in full brown breeding plumage:

And as I stretched over the water, trying hard to get a clean shot of the grebe, and even harder not to pitch headlong into the lake, a grey heron (Ardea cinerea, Dansk: fiskehejre) flew low overhead:

It was so low I thought it must have pitched up very close to where I was but on an adjacent lake, and a quick scan revealed it sat in the top of a tree being pestered by the common tern that had earlier been harrassing the carrion crow:

The terns were deeply unhappy with any potential predator, although they were less keen to buzz a pair of sparrowhawks which were in the air above the same stretch of water!

All those flocking waders

The Cambridgeshire Fens can be a bleak and windswept part of the world as the winter months descend, and today it was very bleak and very windswept, but it’s a great location for getting out and seeing some exciting and scarce wildlife.


A small flock of lapwing and golden plover over Burwell Fen

For those of you who don’t know the Fens they’re characterised by wide open flatness and big skies. They were originally under water but were drained by Dutch engineers in the 17th and 18th centuries to leave high quality arable land. The soil is extremely rich in organic material which gives the soil the rich black colour evident in the picture above.

I set off there on Saturday with my friend David because there had been a report on the Cambridge Bird Club website of short eared owls (Asio flammeus, Dansk: mosehornugle) in the vicinity. After wending our way through Swaffham Prior and Reach we rocked up at Tubney Fen where we sat in a new National Trust hide overlooking a new pond with new reed beds which had four coots (Aythya fuligula, Dansk: blishøne) and a pair of mute swans (Cygnus olor, Dansk: knopsvane) paddling on it. And no other signs of life whatsoever.

As we watched, the mute swans took off and looped round low right in front of us and landed back on the water. At least one of them landed on the water in the spectacular and graceful way that mute swans do. The other one crash landed on the ground just short of the water and after regaining its equilibrium stood looking highly indignant but managed to retain it’s dignity in a way that only a mute swan could in those circumstances. We hoped it wasn’t injured but it looked to be suffering from little more than damaged pride.

After another five minutes sat in the hide the lack of further activity and the low temperature caused us to move on, and on the way back to the car we spotted eight whooper swans in a field several hundred meters away. The whooper (Cygnus cygnus, Dansk: sangsvane) is a winter migrant to the UK and a very scarce breeder, usually less than ten pairs a year will breed here. It’s a similar size to the mute swan but it’s neck is straighter and the beak is straight with a black tip and pale yellow base. Their breeding territory is in the high Arctic and they migrate south as far as Africa for the winter.


A family unit of eight whooper swans – two adults with white plumage and the charateristic yellow beak and six cygnets with pale grey/white plumage and without the yellow beak

We decided to move on to Burwell Fen from Tubney Fen and on the way we were considerably closer to the swans so we stopped for another look. And as we looked David noticed that a pale brown stripe in an adjacent field was in fact a flock of golden plovers (Pluvialis apricaria, Dansk: hjejle) and lapwings (Vanellus vanellus, Dansk:  vibe). When I was a kid I spent a fair amount of time out and about exploring the countryside and huge flocks of lapwing consisting of hundreds and possibly thousands of birds were a fairly common sight. But their numbers have been dwindling for decades and these days I’m pleased if I see more than twenty. A carrion crow was getting agitated in the tree beyond the plovers because a buzzard (Buteo buteo, Dansk: musvåge) was perched there too, but the crow wouldn’t get too close and the buzzard just sat tight and ignored it. There turned out to be 243 lapwing in this flock and for me that alone justified the trip.


Around 10% of the lapwing in our flock of 243

There were also several hundred golden plover. As we watched another even bigger flock joined them and when they were flushed into the air we could see another flock as big again in the middle distance and beyond that another that was enormous. So we estimated that between these flocks there were several thousand birds. It was a amazing sight.

The flocks of waders eventually settled so we made off further into the Fen, pausing to gaze at a group of roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) relaxing in a field:


These very well camouflaged roe deer didn’t seem at all perturbed by our presence

As we watched the deer, a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) quartered the field and then a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus, Dansk: vandrefalk) swooped past car, travelling with the customary haste that species is renowned for.

Arriving eventually at a car park, we continued on foot over a bridge where several kestrels (Falco tinnunculus, Dansk: tårnfalk) were quartering all the fields around and almost immediately spotted a short eared owl. It was perched on a fence post in the middle of the adjacent field and I initially mistook it for a little owl because I was looking at it from front-on and I could only see the top half, but when we saw it through David’s spotting scope we could clearly see it was of the short eared variety.

Short eared owl hunting rodents the easy way, not wasting any energy

As a result of the inclement weather, low light and strong wind, and only having a 300mm lens I couldn’t get any good photographs, but it’s unmistakeably a short eared owl, so I’m happy.

We saw various small songbirds such as chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs,  Dansk: bogfinke) and goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits), five bird of prey species, whooper swans, and countless thousands of golden plover and lapwing. So despite the cold it was fine way to spend a Saturday morning.

Heading south

Last Friday I found myself on the M40 heading south to Windsor. I wasn’t anticipating a particularly eventful trip from a wildlife perspective, but it turned out to be quite remarkable.

My first port of call was my parents house in Northampton, where a great spotted woodwecker and her chicks were feeding on a hanging peanut feeder:


Female great spotted woodpecker eating fatballs in my folks garden. She is easily distinguished from the male due to the lack of a red patch on the nape of the neck. Juveniles also lack the red nape but she was feeding two juveniles so it was obvious she was an adult female

My folks back garden has been a real haven for birdlife in the last few weeks and is currently home to families of great tit, goldfinch and carrion crow too. My Dad places a couple of flower pot stands full of fresh water on his garage roof every day and the carrion crows and rooks then rock up with beaks full of dry bread they have scavenged in the locality and dunk it in the water until it is completely sodden from where they carry it off to feed their chicks.


Carrion crow fledgling, it’s not immediately obvious from this shot but it has very short stumpy tail feathers – diagnostic of a fresh-faced youngster

My folks garden is around only 50m away from a long spinney of old trees and consequently they get a great variety of birds and are currently playing host to a jay, a pair of nuthatch, numerous goldfinch, dunnock, blackbirds etc, etc…


A pair of goldfinch settling a dispute on the garage roof

After a brief stop off in Northampton I headed off south to Maidenhead. One of the original release sites where attempts were made to establish new red kite populations was on the M40 corridor, and not long after passing Oxford I spotted the first one. Shortly after that there was another… and another… and another. From then on down to Windsor there were groups of up to five over the motorway or the adjacent fields every couple of minutes, and I counted 30-40 individuals in that short distance. (Alas I didn’t have my camera with me from here on, so this post is a bit thin on pictures, but I hope the words are sufficient to hold your interest!)

Later on, in the evening, I took a walk along the Thames at Maidenhead where a pair of geat crested grebe were performing a courtship dance. This involved necking followed by diving to collect weed from the riverbed which they presented to the partner when they reached the surface. Overhead, red kite, swallows, swifts and house martins were all wheeling around at various heights hoovering up flies, and the martins were flying to and fro from nests built under the eaves of the houses on the riverside, feeding their young. And an arctic tern was patrolling up and down along the river making the occcasional dive after an unfortunate fish. I love watching terns hunt, they’re amazing fliers, so it was great to see one here.

Heading back north again on Saturday evening there weren’t the numbers of kites I’d seen on Friday, but there were still a few to be seen. All in all, the red kite conservation story is an amazingly successful one and it’s good to see that human intervention can sometimes correct an egregious wrong perpetrated in the past!

April birdwatch

The activities of the birds in my garden have changed significantly in the last 2-3 weeks. Until then I was seeing multiple blackbird, robin, starling, goldfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, collared dove and house sparrow with less frequent visits by long tailed tit. Since then a pair of wood pigeon have virtually taken up residence in my back garden and hoover up all the bird food before the smaller species get a look in. There is still the occasional dunnock and blackbird on the ground and much less frequent visits by blue tit, robin, starling and chaffinch but the goldfinch have all but vacated. This is interesting because when I’m outside I regularly see and hear groups of goldfinch in the trees around the garden but something seems to be keeping them away from my feeder.

My friend Chris told me he had a songthrush rearing chicks in a nest in a tree in his garden and she fledged four youngsters last week, which is very early in the year, so hopefully she’ll fit in another brood this year. But his garden has been subject to the attentions of a sparrowhawk in recent months so he was worried it would catch the fledglings, but clever use of carefully placed hanging bamboo canes has successfully deterred the hawk and all four fledglings seem to have successfully flown the coop. Songthrush 4, sparrowhawk nil.

Continuing with garden birds, last week it occurred to me that the fat balls hanging in my front garden were requiring replenishment rather more frequently than usual so I guessed the nesting birds were feeding more often. The reason turned out to be rather more amusing:


One of the local rooks has worked out that these are edible…

…and that it can reach them. And it takes alot of fat ball to fill a hungry rook!

Slightly further afield in the hedgrows and scrub bordering the farmland around Histon it’s a very good time to survey the local wildlife. As I mentioned in a previous post many species of wild flower now including forget-me-not, yellow archangel…


Forget-me-not

Yellow archangel – Lamiastrum galeobdolon, this variegated version is an invading subspecies ‘argentatum’

…herb robert, cow parsley and periwinkle are all in bloom and lining the paths through the countryside filling them with a palette of colour.

And in the fields, trees and bushes there is an abundance of birdlife:


Corn bunting perched in the midst of a field of oil seed rape

The countryside is ablaze with the yellow of rape flowers right now and just occasionally a photographic opportunity such as this one arises. I’m not particularly keen on the vast swathes of rape but it created a lovely backdrop for this corn bunting which are becoming increasingly uncommon.

It’s not unusual to see and hear bullfinch in one patch of scrub near the church in Histon, which is a regular destination for my birdwatching outings. That makes me very happy because I used to see them all the time when I was a kid in the 1970’s but since the 80’s they seem to have been persecuted to near extinction in alot of the UK because of their fondness for the green shoots of commercial fruit trees. They are still fairly elusive but I managed to get this photograph of a male (just!):


Male bullfinch – the female has similar markings but they are not pink she is more pale grey/brown

And in the same field as the bullfinch linnet are in residence, as are willow warbler, chiffchaff and blackcap which have now returned from over wintering in Africa:


Blackcap male

Chiffchaff

…as are whitethroat:


A female whitehroat, one of a pair patrolling a patch of brambles in the middle of the field

This field is an amazing place, I reckon it’s approximately 10-12 acres and it comprises several habitats including open-ish grass, it’s sorrounded by some old established trees: oak, ash and horse chestnut with hedgerow joining up the old trees consisting mainly of hawthorn and in the field itself there are alot of ash and other saplings and some large patches of bramble. Consequently it provides good supplies of food and cover for nesting for a number of different species. Green woodpeckers can be constantly heard yaffling to each other:

…and birds of prey including kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard are regularly in the skies above. The green woodpecker are there all year round and are usually hidden in the grass so I’ll flush one off the ground only for it to disappear into a tree too distant to allow a photograph. So this is about the best image I have of one. Most of the common or garden birds are regulars here too, house sparrow, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit:

…and chaffinch

…blackbird, songthrush, rook, crow and magpie are all present every day. So a small area of mixed scrub an the edge of the village supports a wonderful number of our birds.

There’s lots to see by simply look up in the village too. On the way back from the playground in Impington with my kids today we cycled along a road under a tree as a jay emerged from a silver birch on the other side of the road and landed in the tree a few metres over our heads. We all stopped to look at it and marvel at it’s amazing colours, and it looked at us for a minute or two before flapping off higher up the tree.

Fen Drayton nature reserve

Before I tell you about my outing to Fen Drayton here’s a short update on the forest sell off. After denying they are backtracking, the Government has said they may reduce the amount of forest they are getting rid of. Plans to lose 15% of the 258,000 hectares of publicly owned forest are on hold whilst the government ‘re-examine the criteria‘ for the sale. I’m hoping this is government style smoke-and-mirror speak for ‘we’re deciding whether we should proceed at all‘. Time will tell. I think any reexamination is good news and maybe a sufficiently loud public outcry will force the powers that be to sit up and take notice of the vox populi on this issue, and maybe a few others too.

I didn’t manage a wildlife post last week, other events overtook me including the weather, which was blowing a gale at the weekend so I was struggling to see anything through binoculars and photography was completely out the question! So apologies for the omission. There were a few highlights from last weekend though: in a tree in the middle of a field behind Abbey Farm north of Histon I saw a pair of kestrels copulating – which is a fairly unusual sight but it’s good to know the local kestrel population should be increasing this year. Further round towards the Girton road was a big mixed flock of around 50 starling, a similar number of redwing and around 200 fieldfare feeding on the ground and as I was counting these a little egret passed over. I’d been told by a dog walker a couple of weeks ago there was one in that area but this was the first time I’d seen it for myself. Egrets are a comparatively recent addition to the fauna in the UK and they are slowly finding their way northwards in England. The first time I saw them was in the fish market in the middle of Victoria, the capital of the Seychelles, so they have very exotic associations for me and it’s great to see them so close to home.

I set off fairly early in the morning yesterday with my friend to head for Fen Drayton nature reserve which lies between Cambridge and St Ives. It’s a former gravel pit consisting of twelve lakes and ponds which is currently managed by the RSPB. There is a big area of water here interspersed with grassland, scrub woodland, some older more established trees and plenty of reedbeds. So it has a diverse range of habitats that are managed for wildlife and is therefore a good place to see birds.


Far Fen lake showing the varies habitat at Fen Drayton

Despite raining on the way up the A14, by the time we got to the reserve the rain had stopped, leaving complete cloud cover, so the light was very grey as you can see from the landscape shot above. Otherwise the conditions were good: mild, gentle breeze and the occasional, albeit brief, moment of sunshine.

The omens were good too when on the way to Fen Drayton we saw a hare running across a field, and on the approach to the reserve three bullfinch including at least two males were flitting along the hedge just in front of the car. When we were getting out of the car in the car park we could here a cetti’s warbler singing and three green woodpeckers rose up off the ground in quick succession just in front of us.

As we stopped to look at a group of tufted duck on the small pond north of Holywell Lake a jay which we had watched fly across the field appeared in some dead trees on an island in the pond and started stripping big chunks of bark from the tree, possibly looking for food it had stashed there previously. Jays are amazingly good at stashing and are aware that their fellow jays do the same and so will keep a look out to see if they are being watched. If they see another jay paying attention to their activities they will pretend to stashe and then fly off and hide the swag somewhere else.


Four tufted duck – one female and three males on the pond north of Holywell Lake. Note the piercing yellow eyes and the crest

Tufted duck are resident on lakes and we also get migrants visiting in the winter when they stop over on rivers and estuaries too. They’re omnivores and feed by diving to the bottom to sift food from the mud. I think they’re handsome birds especially when they turn their yellow eye to look at you.

Constant companions throughout our walk were chaffinch and great tit. They were present in numbers in almost every tree or bush I looked in.


Chaffinch male in a tree singing for a mate

There were a plethora of other small birds including blue tit, wren, dunnock, robin, goldfinch and long tailed tit. On a bright day it’s now a good time of year to look for and photograph birds because they are actively seeking mates and there are no leaves on the trees to conceal them.


One of a flock of around 7 long tailed tits whizzing through the trees – they’re fiendishly difficult to photograph like that so this is as good as it got!

There was almost a full house of the five common crows – jay, carrion crow, rook – but no jackdaw. There were quite a few magpies though:


This chap was bouncing around the car park

Coot abounded on all the lakes but the stars of the day were the ducks of which there were many species including our common or garden mallard, shoveller, tufted duck, gadwall and wigeon…


A single male wigeon on Oxholme Lake

… but the real star of the show was the goldeneye. There were displaying male goldeneye on Far Fen Lake but alas they were much too far away to get a photograph. They are also resident breeders with migrants arriving in the winter months too.

Mute swan were present on several of the lakes and a couple came over in flight too:


The A380 of the avian world…

And as with all good nature reserves the wildlife wasn’t solely ornithological. This beautiful little fungus was on a stem next to the path.


Dacrymyces chrysospermum – unfortunately I couldn’t find a common name for this resupinate fungus but its sumptuous colour against the green lichen on the tree stem is striking.

All in all Fen Drayton was a great venue for a Saturday morning wildlife adventure and I’ll be posting from here again before too long.

Rookes, Crowes and Choughes

‘If men had wings and black feathers, few of them would ever be clever enough to be crows’

Henry Ward Beecher
Clergyman, wit and abolitionist

I’m incarcerated at home at the moment, having been laid low with a seasonal Yuletide dose of coughing and spluttering so I haven’t been out observing, photographing and recording. Consequently, this is an ‘armchair post’ using old photographs, and constructed in the warmth of my dining room.

It has been inspired by the superb book ‘Corvus‘ by Esther Woolfson which describes living with many different birds including a rook and a magpie. If you haven’t yet read ‘Corvus‘, insist on a copy as a stocking filler this Christmas. It’s a beautiful book and is beautifully observed and written, one of the best nature books I’ve ever read. It’s very informative, funny and thought provoking and has led me to ponder the enduring relationship between humans and our wild creatures.

Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) sitting on a fence at the top of one of Bempton Cliffs in East Yorkshire

The title of this post ‘Rookes, Crowes and Choughes‘ uses archaic (Tudor) names for three of the Corvids (crow family), ‘choughs’ at that time also included jackdaws, as used in one of the most unpleasant pieces of legislation this country ever promulgated, viz, ‘Destruction of Crows, etc. Act 1532’. This act was passed under Henry VIII and was extended under the reign of Elizabeth I with promulgation of the ‘Preservation of grain Act, 1566’. Together known as the ‘Vermin Acts’, they established a legal framework for the destruction of animals and birds of all descriptions which were deemed a threat to food supplies:

‘…to doo and cause to be don as moche as hym or theym reasonably shall or may be to kill and utterly destroye all manner of Choughs, Crowes and Rookes comyng, abyding, bedying or hauntying (their property) upon peyne of grevous amerciaments to be levied by distress of the goodes and catalles of the Offendours.’

Landowners and workers were thereby legally compelled to actively destroy corvids and communities could be fined up to 20 shillings for failing to meet every year with the court appointed functionary to agree methods to achieve this goal. Along with corvids; kingfisher (believe it or not!) dipper, woodpecker, shag, hedgehog, mole, polecat, fox, rat, badger, weasel, stoat, otter, wild cat and pine marten were all slated for destruction. Kites and ravens fetched remuneration of one penny, a badger or fox, 1 shilling, on presentation of a head as proof of its demise. There was therefore a real financial gain to be made by killing these creatures. (It’s interesting to note how many of the proscribed species are currently the subject of protection legislation and conservation programs.)

Henry VIII didn’t stop there, he also passed the ‘Sumptuary Law’ of 1510, to be updated several times under Elizabeth I and known collectively as ‘The Statutes of Apparel’, which governed what could be worn by which social strata thus establishing a dress code regarding furs. Royalty could wear ermine and substrata of nobility could wear fox, otter etc… . Open season was thus declared on all furry animals.

However, and it is a big however, it is very easy to sit in the comfort of our centrally heated houses with our cars and our convenience stores, and pass glib judgement on people of those times. In the 16th century many harvests failed, early death from disease was a ubiquitous presence in the lives of all people, rich and poor, and one way to stave off such a fate was to eat healthily. Anything which threatened the food supply was therefore deemed vermin to be exterminated.

Religious factors also played a part, e.g. the otter’s diet was predominantly fish so their flesh was deemed by the church to be sufficiently fishy to be eaten for religious reasons instead of fish. God help the otter.

Carrion crow (Corvus corone) foraging for insects

The Vermin Acts were repealed in the mid 18th century but the practices they enforced only started to abate in the early to mid 20th century. That reflects a blood lust in humans which is anachronistic and indicative of a deeply unpleasant side of human nature that in our more enlightened times one may hope would find an outlet in other, more civilised, pursuits. So it is infinitely less problematic to pass judgement on the contemporary activities of hare coursers, badger baiters, egg collectors and misguided land stewards who still trap, poison and shoot red kites… or hen harriers etc., etc..

Back to crows, I have never subscribed to the point of view that members of the crow family are malevolent, wantonly destructive, or the harbingers of doom, as popular culture has historically portrayed them.  And they certainly didn’t merit the attempts at wholesale extermination decreed for them in Tudor times.

I have often watched a couple of hundred rooks assemble in the mornings over Histon church amidst much cawing and general hubbub prior to disappearing en masse either as one, or in several smaller groups to feed in the local fields. I’ve also watched them wheeling in the air, playing tag, and indulging in what can best be described as pure devilment with their fellows and with other species of birds. They seem to possess a keen intelligence probably essential for a creature which lives socially in very close proximity to hundreds of others. The habit of all members of the corvid clan of caching food items, and then re-caching an item if they know they were watched first time round, indicates they have self awareness, awareness of others and coherent notions of the intent of others, and the ability to plan accordingly. And of course a very impressive memory.


Some of the Histon churchyard rooks (Corvus fruglilegus) taking to the air over a field to the north of Histon…
…and a single member of the mob on the ground looking for leatherjackets

It has also been demonstrated from a neuroanatomical standpoint that corvids have a high ‘encephalisation quotient’ – ratio of brain to body size – which renders them capable of higher levels of brain activity and I think that is adequately demonstrated by just watching them for a short time – 10 minutes observation has been enough to convince me on some occasions. ‘Bird brains’ they certainly aren’t!

The key point, it seems to me, is that scientific elucidation of relative intelligence levels between species is a somewhat redundant enterprise in many ways except than as part of an effort to change human perception, and hopefully educate people that random massacre of wild animals is not acceptable. I find it bizarre and shameful that it has ever been considered a reasonable occupation by humans to slaughter billions of animals for no particularly good reason. It is incumbent on all species to share our surroundings with each other in order to maintain a functioning and healthy place which we can justly claim to have managed in a sustainable way.

Blimey, there we are. Nothing like a dose of flu to catalyse a bit of pre-Christmas moralising. But I think if everyone were to read Esther Woolfsons ‘Corvus‘ it may impart a deeper understanding and respect for our fellow creatures in many more people. I think attitudes to other creatures are changing as the enormous amount of available information is accessed by people all over the world, but preserving wildlife will be a perpetual process as wildlife is squeezed into smaller and smaller pockets of true wilderness. I hope we can find a working balance.