Tag Archives: corvid

Colourful Corvids

Rooks, crows and jackdaws are the most commonly seen and easily identified ‘crows’. They’re all black and they are widespread across the UK. But they’re not the only members of the crow or ‘Corvid‘ family. Ravens and choughs are also black members of the crow family, although the chough has bright red beak and legs, but both these species are fairly uncommon and seen mostly at or near the coast. There are two common and more colourful crows, the magpie (Pica pica, Dansk: husskade) and the jay (Garrulus glandarius, Dansk: skovskade).


Magpies can be seen everywhere, this one was in a tree opposite my garden

Magpies have an unfortunate reputation on two counts. They are considered to be inveterate thieves, having a particular fondness for shiny objects and they are generally reviled for their feeding habits during nesting of raiding other birds nests and predating the chicks. Of which more in another post. It seems to me they are handsome birds which are much maligned, they simply do what all wild creatures do, i.e. whatever is required to survive and propagate the species. While I watched this one I could hear several green woodpeckers (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) yaffling around the field and eventually one chased this magpie away from the top of the tree:


The woodpecker, bottom left, was extremely unhappy with the presence of the magpie and voiced it’s discontent with lots of shrieking as it flew aggressively into the tree

Jays are less frequently observed than magpies, predominantly dwelling in wooded areas in the countryside, but they are also seen in towns and villages where there are wooded areas. I’ve seen them along the Backs in Cambridge, and my friend who lives in a less wooded part of Cambridge has photographed them in his back garden. I encounter the occasional jay brightening up the day when I’m out walking around Histon, but last Sunday I had eight sightings, which is completely unprecedented. There were at least five individuals, one pair appeared together in the fields followed by a separate one a few seconds later, and another pair were busy burying acorns in the orchard opposite my garden. And they are spectacularly colourful, not at all what one might expect from a crow:


The splendid plumage of the jay!

Several jays and magpies came and went from this spot at the top of the tree in the space of a few minutes.


And when in flight the electric blue flash on the wing-bend opens up into a fan


As well as having an eye for sparkly trinkets jays are accomplished stashers and hoarders, and I’ve heard that a single jay can stash as many as 5000 acorns. They also show higher levels of intelligence whilst stashing, if they become aware they are being watched they will pretend to stash and then move away and hide their acorn somewhere else. I think that’s remarkable behaviour; moving away and hiding food elsewhere is one thing, but awareness of what another creatures intentions may be, and reacting to that by subterfuge suggests  a level of underdstanding and reasoning not commonly associated with creatures other than humans.


On the ground with an acorn in its beak looking for a suitable burial site, and checking its handywork :

As I watched this pair of jays at work, one of them put it’s acorn down and picked up a short stick, probably around 10cm long, and used it to make holes to bury the acorns in. So as well as the other tricks this jay used a tool to make bigger holes in the ground than it could manage with it’s beak in order to secrete its winter food supplies.

They’re remarkable birds, the Corvid family, and half an hour spent watching any crow species is entertaining and more than a little thought provoking.

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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.