Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country: Take care of the dark sentinels of the graveyard

Winter scene

Celebrating the Wild Side of Yorkshire’s Coast & Country:
Take care of the dark sentinels of the graveyard

An appropriate denizen of churchyard or cemetery, a dark sentinel of nature but with human attributes. Some time back, high on the bleak hillside cemetery of Crookes in Sheffield we gathered to bid farewell to a very dear friend. As the coffin was lowered and the priest spoke the last rites, the rooks gathered around, etched back against the stark white snow they observed in silence. Now is the time to observe and admire the rooks as there circle and call over their chosen trees, their traditional habitations.

Always closely associated with people and human settlements, feeding on arable and pasture, they nest almost exclusively in tall trees in farming landscapes. Yet people often confuse carrion crows and rooks and this is not new. It has happened through the centuries with terms like ‘as the crow flies’ referring not to carrion crows but to flocks of rooks flying nosily and directly to winter roosts or summertime rookeries from their feeding sites many miles away. This habitual behaviour of large, often spectacular flocks was observed by country dwellers and gave rise to the phrase. It is suggested that you should ‘Welcome rooks who nest in trees near your home – they are said to bring good luck; but beware if they desert their rookery, for then bad luck may befall.’ Shakespeare’s Macbeth in his tormented and confused mind notes ‘the crow makes wing to the rooky wood’; interpreted as good luck if a rook going to the rookery, but bad luck if a carrion crow, an omen of ill-fortune and misery as daytime slips into evening and ‘night’s black agents come forth’.

Winter rookery

Rooks were important for good or bad fortunes of families and estates, so you kept them informed of happenings especially deaths. This was important to ensure the rooks stayed and did not leave the rookery because of the death. If they left then further bad luck followed; so someone was sent to the rookery to tell the news. With their gregarious and communal behaviour rooks have traditionally been given human attributes – ‘Rook Parliaments’ and ‘Rook Juries’ where they gather and pass judgement on their fellows. They help predict the weather according to old beliefs that they sit in rows on walls or fences when rain is expected. A Yorkshire version was that if rooks congregated on dead tree branches rain would come before nightfall; if on live branches then it would be fine and dry. However ‘When in the trees the rooks build high, expect the summer to be warm and dry’.

Winter rookery 1

Of course, on the Lost Fens theme of my recent lecture and book, the rook was not common in the undrained fenlands – because of the lack of big, tall trees. Once the Fens were ‘reclaimed’ to agriculture, then the huge flocks of rooks became a typical and common sight. The farmland suited them, and as planted trees matured, in say 100-150 years after drainage, there was then rookery habitat in abundance. Of course, today, as rook numbers have dropped we mourn their passing.

Professor Ian D. Rotherham is a researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues and can be contacted via ianonthewildside@ukeconet.co.uk or through this website

Rooks nest in winter

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