Thursday, 30 April 2009

Corvus quotidianus

One of my favourite books of 2007 was Mark Cocker’s Crow Country, and now I’ve been enjoying Esther Woolfson’s Corvus: A Life with Birds, which is mainly about a crow which she rescues and which becomes a favourite pet. If you’re interested in the mundane, you’ve got to like rooks, which have been overlooked and even reviled throughout history for their commonness and supposed ugliness. Their rich collective lives also mimic our own daily routines. Rooks are the most sociable of birds and like to build their nests near roads so we can look at their roosts (the roundabouts on the A1 being a great place to spot them, according to Cocker). The idea that preciousness is somehow linked to scarcity, and that only exotic animals are worthy of our attention or protection, finds echoes in our own attitudes to the everyday which, as Georges Bataille wrote, ‘receives our daily inattention’.

Like ants, that other intensely tribal animal, rooks will fearlessly protect their own. In King Solomon’s Ring, his classic book about animal behaviour, Konrad Lorenz describes being attacked by jackdaws while holding a black, fluttering object that they mistake for one of their siblings. Don’t carry a binbag with rooks around – they will have you.

Incidentally, I liked Woolfson’s description of the ‘breathtaking, iron-filing flight’ of flocking starlings: ‘Starlings organise themselves for the night in their social groupings, with adult males flying in to roost first, occupying the best places in the centre, whilst the young females, those last scatterings of flecks in the sky, sucked into the curve of the tunnels, have to make do with what’s left.’

It reminded me of Coleridge’s description of the starling host he encounters at dawn while riding in a coach to London: ‘Starlings in vast flight drove along like smoke, mist or anything misty without volition – now a circular area inclined into an arc – now a globe – now from complete orb into an ellipse and oblong – now a balloon with the car suspended, now a concave semicircle – and still it expands and condenses, some moments glimmering and shivering, dim and shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening.’

Mundane quote for the day: ‘The instincts of flight and aggression trail the knights of wage-labour, who must now rely on subways and suburban trains for their pitiful wanderings.’ - Raoul Vaneigem


  1. Brian de Leek1 May 2009 at 12:07

    I was taught this rhyme by a Hampshire man to help me differentiate between rooks and crows.
    "A crow in a crowd is a rook and a rook on its own is a crow".Is this mnemonic universally known or just unique to Hampshire?

  2. I too get confused between crows, ravens and rooks. I think rooks - large, noisy all-black birds anyway - were responsible for ruining my front lawn last year.They pecked great holes in it - presumably looking for some particular insect.I didn't feel too happy about them but i realise they were only wanting to eat,poor things. Don't think my wife forgave them though.