Wildlife Column with Prof Ian Rotherham

Reader Phil Green was in touch with a question about crows.

Friday, 10th January 2020, 10:32 am
Updated Wednesday, 5th February 2020, 1:17 pm
Carrion crow by Ian Rotherham.

He wrote: “You kindly replied to a query about bark stripped from willow trees during the hot summer of 2018 where I work at Beauchief in Sheffield, agreeing it was probably done by thirsty or hungry squirrels.

“I now have another query about something at Beauchief, which has puzzled me for a few years now.

“Every autumn for as long as I can remember, from late October or early November, huge flocks of rooks – or crows? – would make their way noisily from a south easterly direction at about dusk, over the Beauchief Hall estate where I was locking up the old Ferguson tractor.

“They were off to the huge rookery in Ecclesall Woods. As a dare to my younger self, I once ventured into the woods after dark to witness the incredible sound of the birds gathering and settling at night.

“It was spooky, but very exciting.

“If ever I mentioned this phenomenon to my ex English teaching dad, he would without fail and to my delight, quote Macbeth, ‘light thickens; and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood’.

“I could not have put it better myself. However, when light thickens these days there are no crows passing lugubriously overhead and I miss them. Where are they?”

I think this winter there are no significant flocks anywhere.

A few years back, up to 10,000 rooks, carrion crows and jackdaws were roosting in Ecclesall Woods and passing over Norton and Woodseats most of the afternoon.

There were also huge pre-roosts gatherings at Totley and at Owler Bar.

My only guess, just a hunch, is that the underlying cause is unseasonably mild weather.

I have also lost my small rookery at Norton this year - which is sad.

There is no sign of the old nests either, so I wonder if strong winds have blown them out.

In old-fashioned country-lore, rooks leaving the rookery were a warning that there would be a death in the landowner’s family.

I still hope they will return, but who knows?