Nature Nonfiction

THE ROOKS OF ULLAPOOL

The black bully birds gather like leaves in the autumnal gusts in which they delight. They are clumsier than ravens as they land in gangs to pick around the overflow of the bins in Ullapool car park. The hooded crow, so numerous in the North West, is kept at the town borders, relegated to the moors. The black backed and herring gulls, despite being the usual aggressors, keep their distance from the car park. The rooks have won the territory here.

I have always favoured the rook as the threadbare monarch of the corvids. To me they are somehow inseparable with a sense of the medieval. Their choral rasping echoing through bare branches, and their grey scurfed, vulturistic faces are inexplicably fused with that era in my mind.

I have encountered mobs of them in motorway service stations, where I have noted their variform appearance. Some bills twisting and curling asymmetrically like uncut fingernails, some whose featherlessness extends from the visage to the pate and and neck. They are alluringly grotesque. 

At odds with their appearance, folklore has mostly been lenient when compared with other members of the ne’er do well crow family. Their rookeries – tight, sturdy witches’ besom balls crowded high up in the tallest trees – are valued when built near homes as it ensures the health of the occupants. An imminent death is expected when the rookery is forsaken, the rooks only returning to accompany the deceased to heaven. In fact, they have been believed to be so pious that they do not labour on Sabbath, and they shit on any human not dressed in their Sunday best for worship.

I don’t know what the current residents of Ullapool think of these birds as they hoarsely sing from the incongruous eucalyptus, if they think of them at all. But it is comforting to me to think of them as mendicant guardians of the town, piously protecting the occupants from death by remaining in the lofty slums. Scaring off the devil like animate gargoyles.

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