Country diary: corvids erupt from their knotted watchtowers

Southoe, Bedfordshire: There is no shortage of dawn food along busy roads. Smart birds know where to build their nests for maximum bounty with minimum effort

This time of year, just before the clocks jerk forward, my commute briefly aligns with dawn as I drive down the A1 with, it seems, everyone else. As the light changes from black to blue – the silhouette hour – my eyes go to the trees lining the road, and the stirring, watchful things in them.

The trees aren’t yet in leaf, but they are alive with activity. They make the lungs of the world; in their crisp biological architecture, just now these look like the lungs in a science book. Branches, trunks, bronchi, bronchioles. And there in them are darkenings and tight clumpings. Unwelcome in a lung, but not in a tree, despite their sinister occupants. These knots of twigs are the watchtowers of nature’s cleaners: corvids. Rooks, ravens, crows. And at around 6.30am they erupt into life.

I stop to watch the comings and goings. They are nesting frantically. In one row of canopies I count five, three, five, seven. My human response is to wonder how they decide between one tree and another.

Corvids breed early, particularly rooks and ravens, and there could be eggs up there already. Why wait? There’s no shortage of dawn food along this road. It cuts though the countryside and it’s always busy.

The birds are up and down from the road, frantic and ragged, like windblown ash. The traffic slows and I see something black and buzzard-sized inspecting something unidentifiable and spattered on the hard shoulder, edging around it, picking at it with a peculiar precision. I see its face and it’s a raven – that beak and hunched, beady countenance – a big, smart bird. Smart enough to know where to build its nest for maximum bounty and minimum effort.

Rooks and ravens erupt from their knotted watchtowers.
‘Rooks and ravens erupt from their knotted watchtowers’. Photograph: Simon Ingram Photograph: Simon Ingram

These birds suit the silhouette hour. I’d always thought them permanent silhouettes, inscrutable, anonymous. Yet you see one close, one habituated to noise, traffic and chaos, and it’s impressive. And a beautiful black, iridescent navy-black, the rich black of liquorice and oil.

Up in those nests, if there were eggs, they would be mottled pale blue and grey, vibrant and gorgeous. Colour and life in those clumped darkenings – just before the spring, before new leaves take them from view.


Simon Ingram

The GuardianTramp

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