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Nooks for rooks

P.J. Kavanagh on two ornithological books

6 August 2008

12:00 AM

6 August 2008

12:00 AM

Crow Country Mark Cocker

Cape, pp.216, 8.99

Corvus: A Life with Birds Esther Woolfson

Granta, pp.322, 16.99

Was it Wordsworth who discovered the ‘real’ rural? Later, the Georgian poets celebrated its passing, giving rise to what Edward Thomas called ‘the Norfolk Jacket school of writing’. The poets of the 1930s took up politics instead, and nowadays poets are mostly urban. These scatter-shot generalisations, riddled with exceptions, are only meant as an introduction to the astonishing welter of prose books, not poetry, since the beginning of this new century, which contain the word ‘wild’ in their titles: How To Be Wild, The Wild Places, Wildwood, The Wild Trees. All these lament, either explicitly or by implication, the way we seem to have lost touch with the non-human world.

Here are two more of the same kind, not about trees or places but about birds, more particularly rooks, and these have the same intention to make us look more closely at what, they assume, we might otherwise take for granted.

On the dust-jacket of Crow Country it is described as ‘a prose poem’, which might make the heart sink a little, although Mark Cocker can certainly describe the quasi-religious moment that a mass movement of rooks can inspire. His book is really an account of an obsession, self-confessed. He is a professional nature-writer and it is true that he sometimes tells us more about the rooks — or corvids, the genus to which the rook and jackdaw belong, as do jays, ravens and magpies — than the general reader needs to know. However, what he conveys is his enthusiastic love for the intelligence and charm and sociability of these most commonplace of birds. It would be hard after reading this book not to regard their chattering and movements with greater interest. Cocker rises at 3 a.m. to catch them gathering, he counts them on a small gadget held in his hand which he need not look at: he dare not take his eyes off them because, in thousands, they can take off as one bird and disappear he knows not where. He tracks them across the flatlands outside Norwich, loses them, finds them; to comprehend the patterns of their lives takes him years.

Even his understanding mother is compelled to ask, ‘Why rooks?’. He is himself saddened, as well he might be, that some find the intensity of his interest and narrowness of focus ‘sad’. It is a passion, like any other, and does him good. Almost in self-defence he cites the case of the Victorian Lewis Harding, a famous rookist (The Rooks of Trelawne). Harding had been posted, as a teacher, to the ultimate penal hell-hole, Norfolk Island. The brutalities he witnessed there made him return to Cornwall nervously broken down; his naturalist doctor prescribed rook-watching as a cure. In his journal Hardings’s observations grew more and more usefully accurate — even his handwriting improved. He lived to a hale and unbroken 86.

Corvus is a lovingly detailed account of sharing a house with a rook called Chicken. Esther Woolfson, maternal, married to a doctor, living in granite Aberdeen, is brought the bird as a fallen fledgling and grows to love its intelligence, curiosity, moods, cries, as she dares to hope it loves her. It may well do so: making little cooing noises when she appears (and she bows in return). As it grew it flew, to its obvious dismay. It had come from a rookery 12 miles away, there were none nearby, so reluctantly she clipped its wings. It seemed relieved. Chicken became a part of the family and was later joined by a fledgling magpie, which when the time came was allowed to fly inside the house. The resulting mess and destruction from both was patiently endured, their personalities closely described and reflected upon by the unsentimental, sympathetic and scholarly-minded author. The magpie Spikey, equally but differently loveable, became difficult as it grew older, clearly longing for freedom, but would not have lasted long outside. So it died, presumably from frustration, but already many years older, as were both birds, than the normal lifespan.

This book is so entertaining and intelligent for three-quarters of its length that the only complaint (as with Crow Country for different reasons) is that it is too long. It is almost as though someone — the publisher? — had asked the author to bulk it out, and the last quarter is filled with technicalities about larynxes and feathers, whereas the first three-quarters are humane and meditative. Both these books in their different ways are refreshing investigations of the non-human, the wWild — for Chicken never became ‘tame’. It behaved like a rook; and, as it might have been in the rookery, was sociable and affectionate.

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