Thursday, 13 November 2008

Book Review

Crow Country by Mark Cocker, Vintage Books, Paperback ed. 2008 (ISBN 9780099485087), 216pp, £8.99

Yes, I know that several of my previous articles on this blog have had a botanical slant, so why, I hear you ask, am I reviewing a book about birds?

Well, first, this is a very well written book about the British countryside, and that is recommendation enough. But, on a deeper level, it embodies a concept which fascinates me: the idea that common organisms in our environment are often more interesting and more complex than we usually give them credit for (if we notice them at all).

Mark Cocker lives in Norfolk, in the Yare Valley, and he appears to belong to that loose coterie of East Anglian writers on the British countryside grouped around Richard Mabey and Ronald Blythe. His particular interest is in the Crow Family (Corvidae). He tells us that, in Britain, this bird family is represented by seven breeding species: the Eurasian jay, black-billed magpie, red-billed chough, Eurasian jackdaw, rook, carrion crow and northern raven. Within that group he is especially fascinated by rooks and the jackdaws which often associate with them.

Mr Cocker tells us that, for several years, he has been attempting to unravels the ‘whys’ and ‘wherefores’ of rook (and jackdaw) nesting and roosting behaviour. His interest was first initiated by his observations of the spectacular displays created by flocks of these highly social birds as they left their roosts in the morning and returned to them in the evening.

In order to answer the questions raised by these displays Cocker has travelled widely both within and outside of the UK. At one point he came across an account by a Scottish woman who recalled that, during her Victorian childhood, she would lie in bed at dusk and from her window watch raucous flocks of rooks pass over the house on their way to their roost. Inspired by this account he embarked on an arduous car journey from Norfolk to Dumfriesshire and then spent an uncomfortable November evening on a wind-swept hillside from which he observed … well, I let you read it for yourself!

As well as being an account of some common, but remarkable and incompletely understood, birds, this book is also a rather profound meditation on Natural History and the naturalists who study it; highly recommended!

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