Country diary: there’s a ruckus in the rookery until school begins


The rookery by the old priory seems strangely subdued – until I remember it is a Saturday. Situated where the town gives way to farmland, between the common and the secondary school, it is a circus on school days.

Then, the rooks sway on their piratical tree-top masts, cawing as the tree dips, with a forward bow, as if they were surfing a wave. They cheer me in to work and barrack me out again, just as they do the school buses from the villages and other rookeries.

At breaktime, the students are just as raucous, as the gruff and sharp voices mingle. Behind the netball courts, the nests of magpies are lodged in the crooks of poplar trees like deflated footballs.

But when the bell goes, and the classrooms fill and fall quiet, the rooks quieten too. They descend, boldly, their blue-black wings flapping like blazer tails in the breeze. I watch them through the library windows. They arrive with a confident bounce, and swagger across the grass to pick up sandwich corners or pull shining crisp packets out of the bins, littering the playing field – something the students will be admonished for the next day.

They are magnificent birds; their bare faces and bone-grey bills reminiscent of Shakespearean plague masks, their feathers glossy with good, greasy living. In the light, their blue hue is like the sheen from a broken ballpoint pen.

They lope among the blue-eyed neatness of the smaller jackdaws, like shaggy-throated year 11s to the jackdaws’ more awkward, self-conscious year 7s.

I wonder what they made of the last lockdown, when 400 children and their snacks became 30 again. For the birds, perhaps it was a kind of extended, unseasonal summer holiday, when they would normally be catered for by the picnics and cows on the hot common, pecking at drying cowpats and riding on the backs of heifers, picking at ticks. Although none of these things would have been there. It is hard not to think that the ruckus, now that the buses are rolling in again, is louder, and as appreciative as a round of applause.


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