I love rooks. They’re one of my top-ten birds. OK, so, at the moment, my top-ten bird list contains seventeen species, but rooks would definitely make the cut, no doubt about it.
In my book On the Moor, I describe a ridiculous observation concerning rooks which can’t possibly be right:
One strange, quite possibly imaginary phenomenon I have noticed concerning rooks is that they seem to fly in pairs within the flock. This, in itself, might not be all that surprising: many species of crow, including rooks, are believed to mate for life. But I’ve pretty much convinced myself that each pair of rooks within a flock tends to keep its wing-beats synchronised. Not only do the birds in each pair fly closely together, but they flap their wings in unison. I can’t remember when I first noticed this, but once I had, I kept on noticing it. I’ve even studied photographs I took especially for the purpose, and swear blind I can pair the birds off from the position of their wings alone. If anyone else were to make such a claim, I’d call it bullshit. So no offence taken, call me bonkers, but check it out for yourself, and be prepared, as the Americans say, to eat crow.
Yes, totally bonkers I know.
But is it? When I’m out walking with a friend, we tend to fall into step. Why shouldn’t pairs of birds fall into flap? Human beings quite often subconsciously copy each other’s actions and mannerisms, especially people they’re close to. Psychologists even have a name for it—well they would, wouldn’t they?—they call it mirroring. And any number of pop-psychology articles will confidently inform you that the man or woman of your dreams is definitely flirting with you if they keep mirroring your actions. So why shouldn’t flirting rooks, if you’ll pardon the expression, mirror each other’s flaps?
OK, you have a point: not so much bonkers as bat-shit crazy.
Yesterday, as I was walking along the edge of the Dee Marshes in Cheshire, a small flock of rooks flew overhead. Why not? I thought, and snapped the following photo:
Go on, then, tell me once more that I’m bat-shit crazy, then prepare to eat crow:
There’s a Nobel Prize in this, mark my words.
Carter’s Law of Corvid Mirroring: I like that!
Postscript: Some months after writing this article, I seized an opportunity on Twitter to run it by crow expert and author Mark Cocker. His reply, and another by fellow corvid expert Nathan Emery, indicated that my bat-shit crazy hypothesis might not be quite so bat-shit crazy after all:
@friendsofdarwin doesn’t look crazy to me Richard. Looks spot on and fits my own observations of flight as beh’vr of social importance
— Mark Cocker (@MarkCocker2) October 1, 2016
@friendsofdarwin @MarkCocker2 Not crazy at all! Paired rooks will coordinate their displays very precisely. Helps display bond strength
— Nathan Emery (@feathered_ape) October 1, 2016
Not at all crazy, I've seen it loads of times myself. You watch what at first seems to a random flock of them, and then suddenly you do notice pairs within what at first looked random. I've written about it myself. First to be published gets the acclaim!
Nice try. The flying in pairs isn't the batshit crazy bit—a few people have agreed with me on that front on Twitter, and I'm pretty sure it's right. It's the synchronised flapping observation that will win me the Nobel Prize.