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Ben Dolphin: A peculiar unease in the harsh winter air

Ben Dolphin
Ben Dolphin

“Now THAT is a winter sound,” I said, as rooks called from starkly silhouetted trees on the other side of the field.

My walking companion agreed enthusiastically and proclaimed what a joy it was to hear them, but I was surprised to find I didn’t share his sentiment.

As a countryside ranger I’m well disposed to pretty much everything out there in the natural world, but for some reason the sound of rooks calling across an austere agricultural landscape is something I find unsettling. Other corvids don’t have the same effect on me at all. Not crows, jackdaws, magpies, not ravens, none of them. I like them all. In fact a massive flock (or a “clattering”) of jackdaws is an undisputed highlight of the winter months. So why rooks, exactly?

Genuinely I don’t know, because I in no way share the general disdain for the corvid (or crow) family that holds sway in some sections of society. Almost universally persecuted or demonised throughout the centuries, corvids are generally misunderstood, often highly social, and are both intelligent and resourceful.

Rooks in particular have shown an impressive capability of fashioning tools to obtain food, so are truly fascinating creatures.

The calls of rooks on a dim and damp day as I walk through a muddy field are also the very embodiment of winter, so you’d think that given my predisposition to the colder months and to everything snowy and bleak, actually hearing winter’s cold voice should bring me pure unbridled joy. Weirdly, no. Instead, I can honestly say that I feel something almost elemental, as if the most uncompromising and harsh aspects of winter have taken form and torn right through me. It’s such a cold, wet, muddy sound, and despite the gregarious nature of winter rookeries, despite the profusion of life up in those trees, I instead get an overwhelming feeling of lifelessness from the wider landscape they inhabit. An emptiness. A loneliness. Even a sadness.

At this point you’re probably rolling your eyes and concluding I have an obvious and severe aversion to cold, wet, muddy fields.

And yep, it could be as simple an association as that, but I can’t think of any other creature that provokes such an irrational reaction upon hearing it. Given the times we’re living in I’m tempted to put it down to the fact that one of the collective nouns for rooks is a “parliament”, which is surely enough to turn anyone’s stomach as we approach yet another general election. But no, because even when I was a kid I can remember it being a sound that provoked a peculiar unease. I’ve never liked it.

Is there some long-forgotten childhood trauma at work here? Something weird going on in the dark, dusty corridors of my mind? If there is then the explanation is no doubt filed well out of reach alongside explanations for my other irrational fears – fruit bowls, corn on the cob, people eating crisps on trains, and coughing during snooker tournaments. Seriously, tip of the iceberg!

I’m even willing to entertain the possibility that it has something to do with the trauma of Sunday evening homework, because I can remember being at home on Sunday afternoons as the daylight faded, listening to our resident rooks calling from two massive skeletal trees behind the house, well aware that I couldn’t put the homework off any longer because it was school tomorrow. Maybe that’s where it comes from? You might laugh, but I swear I feel mild panic even now if I hear the introductory themes to Songs of Praise, Antiques Roadshow or Howard’s Way.

This all sounds ludicrous I’m sure, but I was genuinely taken aback by the strength of my reaction to the rooks in that field, and it made me curious whether other people out there interpret their calls in a similar way, as something rather austere and sad. I therefore set about digging around online, albeit more for the rooks’ sakes than for my own, and happily found no shortage of rook fans. Not least wildlife blogger Jeni Bell, for whom rooks provide the comforting year-round soundtrack in her rural location: “If I can hear the rooks, then I am happy.”

Or Mark Cocker who, in his book Crow Country says of rooks: “At the dead moment of the year, when almost everything in nature is silent, they seem to acquire an added vibrancy and passion, the whole winter landscape acting like a great resonating chamber to amplify their power.”

I found it interesting how, like me, he identifies the lifelessness of the landscape the rooks inhabit as being vital to how their sound is perceived. But unlike me, he takes the calls not as an austere and mournful expression of winter itself, but as defiant optimism for what will follow. I like that, and that’s what I’m going to tell myself the next time I encounter them. It might not work, but it’s either that or the therapist’s couch! Oh, and if you’ve now got the Howard’s Way theme sailing around in your head, I can only apologise.

Ben Dolphin is an outdoors enthusiast and president of Ramblers Scotland