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.

Contributor

Simon Ingram

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Country diary: Tawny owls are on the prowl
Comins Coch, Ceredigion Spring has returned to the woodland after the drab shades of winter, but, with predators in the skies, one inexperienced young inhabitant must learn fast if it is to survive the season

John Gilbey

12, May, 2022 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: nature's sparklers sing brightly from beyond the bush
Sandy, Bedfordshire: Dunnocks are never centre stage, but their call suggests they want to be noticed

Derek Niemann

13, Mar, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: the buck stops with me – momentarily
Bishop Auckland, County Durham: There was time enough for me to take in every detail: new antlers clothed in frayed velvet, eyes like polished jet, twitching ears and a rough coat

Phil Gates

07, Apr, 2021 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: crisply dapper and endlessly busy nuthatches entertain
Airedale, West Yorkshire: These birds demonstrate a jaunty disavowal of the laws of gravity as they bob between trees

Richard Smyth

06, May, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: sparrowhawk's yoga moves create more tension
Sandy, Bedfordshire: The pocket predator seemed oblivious to the unnerving effect of his presence on the starlings

Derek Niemann

08, May, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: sheltering from a hailstorm took me back in time
Weardale, County Durham: The valley was full of birdsong today, but in the early 20th century, visitors came here for a different kind of music

Phil Gates

19, May, 2021 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: blackthorn winter has begun to loosen its grip
Wolsingham, County Durham: Pearly buds have opened, smothering blackthorn twigs in a froth of blossom. Spring’s brief intermission is over

Phil Gates

21, Apr, 2021 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: this is the perfect place to feel the force of spring
Cressbrook Dale, Derbyshire: A riot of green meshes with songs of the whole wood

Mark Cocker

21, May, 2019 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: The first cuckoo of the year prompts a lively family tradition | Virginia Spiers
Caradon Hill, Bodmin Moor: On this cool and hazy May morning, the turf flushes pale green and birds sing from leafy thickets

Virginia Spiers

18, May, 2023 @4:30 AM

Article image
Country diary: the world stands divided between seasons
Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: Sun, rain, snow and back again, winter is split into spring and back again

Paul Evans

11, Feb, 2021 @5:30 AM