Touched by the last rays of the sun, the grey mud of the estuary is dimpled with silver pools. Above them, rooks fly in their thousands, rooks uncountable, on different levels of the air.
They fly no higher than a church steeple. Weaving and turning, dropping and soaring, a bunch of hundreds heads towards the opposite shore while five or 10 metres above them, similar hundreds are making thereturn journey to the trees at this side of the bay.
Back and forth they go, in raucous throngs. Bunches break off into the middle air, loose cannon exploding like flak shells, pixels thrown across the sky or flying onward in small tight squadrons, all beaks aimed in a same direction, until they again become invisible among the mass.
The booms of the angelus bells die in the vast, empty sky over the Argideen Estuary but, for a minute, the air still shakes with sound. Then, after a respectful minute’s silence, the flock, takes wing again and the sky is shattered with metallic cries as the squadrons leap from trees and telegraph wires and fills the air with ‘caw-cophony’ as if they’re voicing victory into the soundless evening.
Flight and sound explode together as if orchestrated. The sky is solely theirs to fly in, and they avail of it. There is timing, some sort of consensus. Across and back, up or down,vertical or horizontal, this cry or that, sound or silence.
What are they doing? For what, this evening gathering of the tribe? They fly in from all points of the compass. They come in groups of half a dozen, in groups of half a hundred. They herald their coming in loud voices. Are they yelling greetings? Are they simply rejoicing at being home to the roost safe and well after another day?
They seem like children, screaming out the news they have to tell, “listen to me, listen to me ...”
All here are of the rook tribe of Cillmanister, winter occupants of this wood opposite the 13th century abbey at Timoleague, where St Molaga established his monastery in the 7th century. Cillmanister, the wood of the monastery. Were the ancestors of the present trees there then? Ireland was a heavily forested country.
Did the ancestor of these rook roost there? Now, in spring, it is a nesting wood of grey herons — ancient looking, anyway — which have always been with us, and of newcomers, the white little egrets now common on the bay.
The rooks, come early or come late, know their way. Sometimes, I see them winging home in small squadrons when it is almost dark, passing Courtmacsherry, 5km down the bay, undistracted by the calls from Courtmacsherry’s own tribe, growing fainter behind them as they near the home trees.
Nightly, in Courtmacsherry, equal numbers of their cousins fill the sky with sound and motion. They belong to another family, with another home. They’re the tribe of the Earl of Shannon woods, with their giant macrocarpa and redwoods, the planter’s trees and, every evening, after sunset, the nightfall sky swirls with rivers and whirlpools of their number.
Over the strand, the gangs almost waltz; the pattern of their massed flight could, at times, be described as waltzing, so graceful and choreographed is it. Play the ‘Blue Danube’ waltz on the shoreline sand, and they might well move to it. It is appropriate that the guests at the hotel, once the summer home of the earl, would have a close-up view of their celebrations.
WHAT is it all about, in Timoleague or Courtmacsherry – in the convocations of rooks that happen every twilight in woods all over our land?
Are they conveying messages? Are they, in fact, talking in rook-talk, subtle structures in their vocal chords striking notes we cannot hear or decipher? It’s hard to believe that the groups coming from north, south, east and west aren’t bringing information — a good place to feed, good barley here, good leather-jacket ground there. Follow me in the morning, gang, and I’ll show you...there’s a day’s feeding for 200 wings!
Well, they may not always stick to the leather jackets and be the farmers’ friends, but isn’t it great that we still have the skies full of birds at evening, even if they’re all drab black and screech like banshees?
May the future, whatever it is to be, long delay the time when the skies are empty of our fellow creatures, for that is what they are. Common birds, they have a longer stake on this planet than ourselves. It’s hard not to stop and watch them open-mouthed, rapt in wonderment. One cannot but bless their continuance, and celebrate our winter evenings full of rooks.