Birds to crow about
Crows have a close association with people and frequently turn up in myths, folk songs and countryside lore. To the Native Americans, the raven was a trickster, to the Norse, a faithful companion of Odin, and to the Greeks, a messenger of Apollo. Even to this day, it is said that if the Tower of London loses its ravens, Britain itself shall fall.
There are eight species of crow (or corvid) found in the UK, and four are relatively common: the crow itself, the very similar rook, their little sibling the jackdaw, and the audacious magpie. Ravens are less common, but their numbers are now recovering from decades of persecution.
Jays are the UK’s only colourful corvid, but although they’re widespread, they’re also shy and can be difficult to see. The final two – hooded crows and choughs – are much less common and have a restricted range. Of all these species, crows, rooks, ravens and jackdaws are the easiest to confuse.
Carrion crow – a solitary visitor
- Crows are big, heavy birds with black, glossy plumage.
- Males, females and juveniles all look very similar.
- They have large, blunt, black bills.
- They tend to be solitary or in pairs but will also form social groups.
- They fly straight and level with slow wing beats, often quite close to the ground.
Crows are noisy birds. Their most common call is a loud, harsh ‘caa-caa’ that’s usually repeated several times.
Crows are often seen as single birds flying low over fields or gardens, or sitting in trees or on fence posts preening or looking out for their next meal. You do see them in pairs or small groups, and like most corvids, they become a bit more sociable in the winter, even joining mixed flocks of rooks and jackdaws. They’re opportunistic birds and have a broad diet, eating everything from scraps on city streets, through to seeds and fruits, carrion (from where they get their name), eggs and young birds. They will visit garden feeders, most often making nervous hit-and-run raids on open tables.
They build their stick nests in a variety of locations including buildings, cliffs, pylons and trees. They lay up to four eggs, and the chicks are fed by both parents. They tend to be more secretive about their nests than rooks or magpies, and usually mate for life, which can be up to 20 years.
Where to look
Carrion crows are well adapted to many different habitats and turn up everywhere from big cities to the seaside. You’ll also spot them on farmland, moorland, woodland and suburban gardens. They’re widespread across the UK, except in the north and west of Scotland where they are largely replaced by the distinctive grey and black hooded crow. Hooded crows and carrion crows do sometimes interbreed resulting in interesting colour variations along the borders of their range.
Rook – the call of the countryside
- Rooks are also big, heavy birds with black plumage, but there is a touch of purple iridescence to their feathers in bright sunshine
- Adults have a pale grey bill with a distinctive bald patch at the base.
- In juveniles, the bill is black, so they look more like crows.
- The bill is longer and looks pointier than a crow’s bill.
- Rooks tend to appear dishevelled with ruffled plumage and feathers on the legs. They have a slight wedge-shape to their tales in flight.
- They’re gregarious, nesting, roosting and feeding together all year.
The call is similar to crows, but is usually a bit softer and hoarser, without the ringing clarity of the crow’s ‘caa-caa’. You often hear several calling at once.
Rooks are sociable birds and spend much of the year together in big groups, feeding, roosting and even nesting in close quarters. This behaviour can be a useful distinguishing feature for rooks and crows, particularly in the breeding season, but it’s not definitive, as both species are seen singly and in groups. In winter, rooks can join up with other corvids (particularly jackdaws) to roost together. These groups often perform impressive dusk and dawn displays where they fly around together calling loudly. Like all corvids, rooks are opportunistic, resourceful birds, and they have a broad diet including insects, seeds, small birds and eggs, and small mammals.
Rooks nest communally in the top branches of mature trees like ash and oak. These ‘rookeries’ can be very large and distinctive, with the messy nests clearly visible in bare branches over winter. Rookeries are often in use for years, sometimes decades; indeed, the abandonment of a rookery is seen as an omen of bad luck in countryside lore. They’re early nesters, and from February, rooks can be seen flying back to their rookery carrying comically large sticks as they seek to repair winter damage. Nests are also lined with moss and leaves, and then up to four eggs are laid, with both parents raising the chicks. Like crows, rooks form long-lasting pair bonds and can live for 20 years.
Where to look
Rooks have a strong association with the countryside, and rookeries are a common sight in banks of mature trees between farm fields and in rural villages. But they will venture into towns if the right habitat is available. Rooks are often seen in large flocks together in fields or flying out in small sorties to look for food or mob passing birds of prey. You do occasionally see single birds or small groups, particularly in quiet back gardens, where they may come to investigate bird feeders.
The raven – bird of lore
- Ravens are black but have a glossy metallic sheen to their feathers.
- Ravens are much bigger and chunkier than either crows or rooks (they’re actually bigger than buzzards!) but it can be tricky to judge scale when they’re in flight.
- They have a powerful blunt bill, and a shag of throat feathers called hackles.
- They’re often seen in pairs or small family groups, and males, females and juveniles all look similar.
- The have a distinctive diamond or wedge-shaped tail in flight.
The call of the raven is often described as ‘cronk-cronk’. It’s very deep, throaty and powerful: basically, it’s the Barry White of bird calls.
Ravens are super-smart birds and can often be seen engaging in playful behaviour. They have a distinctive heavy, soaring flight, and sometimes flip upside down with closed wings, possibly just for fun. They’re often seen in pairs, but particularly in the winter, young birds can come together to roost in big groups, the largest of which number in the thousands. Ravens are mostly carrion eaters, but they will eat insects and hunt small live prey.
Ravens usually mate for life, and remain together in pairs throughout the year, defending their territories even in the winter. They’re early breeders and build their stick and moss nests from mid-February on cliff ledges, in large trees, or sometimes on buildings or other structures like bridges. They tend to have a few well-used sites and rotate between them on alternate years. Females can lay up to six eggs, and both parents look after the young, which remain in the family group for up to six months.
Where to look
Ravens were once heavily persecuted as pests on farmland and game estates, but protection has helped their numbers to recover. They do sometimes nest in big cities, and if you look up, you may see them soaring and tumbling high above. You’ll also see them on farmland, and in the uplands and mountainous areas, or near seaside cliffs. You’d be very lucky to see one in your garden!
Jackdaws – the chimneypot bird
- Smaller than crows and rooks but still big, they’re neater birds, with a short, stubby bill.
- Black plumage with a grey hood and a black cap.
- Distinctive pale grey eyes.
- Males and females are similar, juveniles are more brown with dark eyes.
- They often live near people and are slightly less timid than the larger corvids.
Jackdaws pretty much say their name, with a ringing ‘jack’ or ‘chack’ call sometimes, but not always, followed by a softer ‘tyaw’. They also have a ‘caw’ call. Jackdaw chicks are very noisy in the nest when they’re being fed.
Jackdaws seem to be more comfortable with people than crows or rooks, though they’re still cautious. They often nest in buildings and can be seen perched up on chimneys and rooftops or walking around on pavements looking for food, sometimes in small groups, but often singly or in pairs. In the air, they have a faster flight than the bigger corvids, and can be very playful, with tumbling aerobatics. In the winter, they often come together in groups to roost, sometimes with rooks, and perform noisy display flights at dusk and dawn. They eat insects, seeds and fruit, but will also take eggs and young birds.
Jackdaws are notorious for nesting in chimneys, which they do by dropping huge numbers of sticks down until there’s a blockage and then they build the nest on top (chimney owners look here for advice). However, they’ll also nest in outbuildings, in big buildings like churches, on cliffs, in tree holes, or in large nest boxes. The nest is lined with soft material, and then up to six eggs are laid. Both adults feed the chicks until they’re ready to fend for themselves. Jackdaws mate for life but also form spaced-out colonies with complex social structures.
Where to look
Jackdaws aren’t common in big urban centres, but they will live in smaller towns and villages, or older suburbs where there are houses with chimneys. They also live in parks, woods, farmland and around sea cliffs. They will visit gardens looking for food or nesting materials, and come to feeders and birdtables, but they don’t tend to hang around.
Choughs – you might mistake a flock of tumbling choughs for jackdaws as they look quite similar in flight. However, choughs are rare and have an extremely limited range. You’re most likely to see them on Islay and on the west coast of Wales. They’re very distinctive, with long red bills and legs.
Magpie – a common and unmistakable bird, with its long tail and black and white plumage. They’re often vilified for their habit of raiding nests, but that behaviour is similar to all crows. Magpies are opportunistic survivors, and are often seen in cities and gardens.
Jay – the only UK crow that isn’t significantly black. In fact, the jay is extremely colourful: buff-coloured with patches of white and a blue panel on each wing. Jays are woodland birds and are much less visible than our other crows. Listen out for their harsh calls when out for a walk, particularly near oak trees.
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