Rooks provide an easy-going falsetto song

Rooks in a nest.
Rooks in a nest.
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HOW MANY rooks are there in Britain? People have been asking that question since at least 1878, when the first census began in Scotland.

Like mute swans on rivers, house sparrows on roofs, robins on bird tables and blue tits in nest boxes, rooks are emblems of countryside. It would be a dull world without them.

Rooks at their nests in the fan vaults of old oaks call like the ring of bells in church spires.

Rooks sentinel at their black blob nests spell spring. We watch and understand their social soaps.

They quarrel, discuss, beg food, plead attention, fight, make-up, love, thieve, rear their young at any price, even near starvation for themselves.

They are wonderful parents indeed. All of them work for the greater cause, just like ants. It is amazing how they find food.

I watch some birds going overhead from the nearest rookery three miles away to some unknown destination three miles at least beyond. I suspect this source to be cattle or sheep feeds or even cattle grazed meadows where worms, larvae, live beetles are to be harvested.

Yesterday I watched a rook in Chichester cattle-market car park prizing a piece of chewing gum off the Tarmac.

A herring gull hurtled down from the sky to steal it but the rook was too quick. I have watched rooks patrolling the main rail line at Barnham, picking up fragments of crisp and biscuit crumb. An abandoned take-away is the jackpot.

Rooks search the grass car park at Goodwood’s Trundle for picnic scraps when car drivers stop for a break and a look at the view.

I love rooks. That easy-going song of falsetto caws is one of the most pleasant sounds of harvest time, when the going is easy.

There are about two million adult rooks in Britain. The first major census organised by top ornithologist James Fisher for the BTO in 1946 gave an estimate of three million.

He counted nests with his army of volunteers. The famous rookery at Crow Wood (‘Cra Wid’) in Aberdeenshire alone produced 6,085 nests. It is still the largest in the world.

Rooks had declined in the 1930s due to harvesting of young birds by cottagers in the Great Depression. They increased by 50 per cent during WWII. But slumped again in the 1950s due to dangerous pesticides.

Today in Sussex they appear to be increasing in the past five years. Even so, only 1,496 nests were counted which seems a low number. There must be some rookeries not found.

If you have records of your local rookery they should be sent to www.sos.org.uk.

The Sussex Bird Report yearly publishes records of every bird reported and the book makes most interesting reading.

Richard Williamson