Take on Nature: Applauding the new day and brushing winter from our wings

 A parliament - or murder... - of crows, brushing winter from their wings.
Stephen Colton

APART from the shiny black imposing figure of the upland raven, the distinctive, red-billed chough of our wild coasts, and the occasional carrion crow, all our other species of corvids are highly visible and audible most of the time during our daily lives, in both urban and rural environments.

These include the brazen magpie, colourful jay of parks and woods, the two-toned hooded crow, and the noisy, raucous rook and jackdaw. Although not especially liked by some, our corvids or 'crows' are highly intelligent and resilient birds.

Despite centuries of persecution by shooting and trapping they remain an integral part of our natural landscape, with anecdotal and scientific evidence showing that crows have self-awareness, tool-making abilities, the capability to problem solve and very good memories.

They are among the small number of animals to have passed the mirror self-recognition test, sometimes called the mirror or mark test, a behavioural method used by American psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. in 1970 to test whether an animal holds the ability to recognise itself when looking at a mirror.

In their paper, Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition (2008), Prior, Schwarz and Güntürkün showed the magpie to be the first non-mammalian species to pass this test, when birds with coloured stickers placed on feathers reacted to their reflections by trying to touch and remove them. Subsequent tests with other crows have also shown their capacity to learn how mirrors reflect objects.

All these thoughts emerge as many living in the village of Dromore, including my partner, have in recent weeks been enjoying the spectacle of hundreds of jackdaws and rooks freewheeling through the dawn sky after leaving the safety of their nightly roosts.

As they greet each new day with joyous conversations, their guttural croaking and cawing reverberates loudly above us in waves before the various parties converge and descend to fill the bareness of a chosen tree.

Their dense mass of blackness quietens to a chatter for moments, until a movement or recognised audible chord from an individual triggers an eruption into the sky again where the corvids swirl and undulate, creating striking, silhouetted patterns before breaking into smaller formations which finally disperse after full sunrise.

Nature poet John Clare in The Crow captures some of this behaviour, writing, "I love the sooty crow" and its "day exercises of croaking joy... I love to see it sailing to and fro".

Crows across the country are replicating these manoeuvres above towns and villages each morning, before eventually returning at dusk to their evening haunts.

Why this collective gathering and noise making happens we can't be fully certain. We know that rooks and jackdaws are very sociable, enjoying the presence of their own kind and living through the flock in colonies.

Old stories tell of 'rook parliaments' held to discuss matters of importance for the group or even to 'try' an accused bird for some misdemeanour like twig thieving.

There is, arguably, an element of 'safety in numbers' with their choice of a gregarious lifestyle but watching their exuberant morning performances, I wonder are these corvids simply expressing joy in each other's company, as they applaud the new day through rowdy cackles and playful dance.

On the cusp of the Celtic festival of Imbolc, February 1, considered by our ancestors as the first day of spring, lines from another of Clare's poems, Crows in Spring, seem appropriate.

The Crow will tumble up and down

At the first sight of spring

And in old trees around the town

Brush winter from its wing.

We all look forward to brushing winter from our wings.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access