Girton Birdwatch - January 2009
Now that the sight of a Common buzzard in the skies over the village is almost a commonplace perhaps it won't be too long before the same might be said of the largest of our native crows: the Raven. Indeed this dramatically large bird, with talons on it like a bird of prey, has been seen recently near the Cambridge Research Park (18th Oct). Moreover, not so long ago my neighbour's young son asked me whether he might have seen one in Girton and I am left wondering whether my response of 'Not very likely' was a little too premature. It would appear that the Raven, which for decades now has been largely confined to the cliffs, moor-lands and mountainsides of Wales, Cornwall and Scotland, has been enjoying a population explosion on a par with that of the Buzzard, Red Kite and Little Egret. Early results from the British Trust for Ornithology's latest Bird Atlas survey - the last was the Winter Atlas of 1981-83 - indicate that Ravens have expanded dramatically in range with birds expanding eastwards in central and southern England, with some edging into south-east England also. Further north, birds are spreading into Merseyside and south Lancashire, the north-east and southern Scotland You should be left in little doubt should you encounter this bird as its sheer size and massively powerful bill are diagnostic, as is its wedge-shaped tail and deep croaking 'pruk-pruk-pruk' call. From a distance it may be mistaken for a bird of prey, especially when its large claws are dangling talon-like, and other hunters of the skies find its heavy, dark flight distinctly threatening. Peregrine falcons have been known to pester a Raven in flight for several miles, sometimes swooping upon it and knocking out the odd feather, although seldom doing serious harm. The Raven is adept at turning on its back in mid-air, protecting itself with its impressive claws, just as the Peregrine is about to attempt a strike.
Ravens, of course, were once very familiar birds in British towns and countryside and what we are presently experiencing is a re-colonisation. Until Tudor times they were highly valued for their refuse-disposal services, as were Red Kites, and were to be found everywhere in our waste-choked streets. Many towns and cities introduced protective by-laws and it was forbidden to shoot them or risk a fine as they were 'considered to drive away bad air'. Obviously Ravens will eat anything - and I mean anything - and this partly explains a certain ambivalence towards them, especially among more 'sensitive' modern peoples. They are renowned, and consequently particularly vilified, for pecking out their victims' eyes whilst still alive, especially those of young sheep and lambs, although they are primarily carrion eaters and the attacks on live animals, one argument runs, has ecological significance in hastening the death of a sickly creature inevitably heading for a lingering end. Folk memory, too, brings back echoes of their descending like vultures upon medieval battle-fields to feast on human flesh. It is little wonder, then, that the collective noun used to refer to them is 'an unkindness'. However, it is also the case that our more distant ancestors, from the Mesolithic onwards, would deliberately expose their dead on excarnation platforms where the body would be picked clean before the bones would be disarticulated and placed in a special burial chamber. It is not surprising, given this combination of circumstances, that 'raven gatherings at these most sacred places, and at a moment that was most spiritually charged for the relatives, converted the bird into a species like few others. Both dreaded and cherished, admired and persecuted, the raven is … the 'great requiem bird of myth and legend' … (and) is, or at least was, among the most significant birds in western society' (Cocker & Mabey).
So, what went 'wrong' and what, in recent years, has been going 'right'? Many factors led to the decline in numbers: over-zealous stock-protection measures, aided by the increased use of the shotgun; the spread of grouse moors and associated poisoning by game-keepers of predators; increased afforestation and the conversion of grazing areas to arable land and more efficient sheep-rearing methods all played a part. On the plus side the introduction of the Wildlife and Countryside Act in 1981 afforded some legal protection and led to a decline in illegal use of poisons, while at the same time shepherds have become more tolerant of Ravens. Equally significantly - and this partly explains the spread of the Buzzard and Red Kite also - there is now a lot more carrion around to feed the birds. Since the government changed the regulations in a bid to halt the spread of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in the 1990's farmers no longer have the same incentive to remove dead sheep and stillborn lambs from the uplands. More food means more young birds survive, which in turn means range expansion as birds are forced into seeking untapped feeding places. It is time to take a closer look at that distant 'boring old crow', it may well be a Raven.
I owe Jonathon Heath an apology for suggesting he might have heard a Wood Pipit over Milton Country Park (GPN Oct). He definitely didn't! There is no such bird (I was thinking of a Wood Warbler) and what he actually heard was a Tree Pipit.