Getting food, by hook or by rook

WAS it that they were blinded by the sunlight and didn’t see me, the two young foxes sitting on a ridge 200 metres away, their thick fur russet against the grass and their white chests very pale?

They sat looking in my direction as might a couple of dogs — at first, I took them for dogs — resting on their backsides and propped on their slim front legs. A pretty picture they made, a charming composition of the type one might see cast in porcelain on a mantelpiece.

After a minute, one rose to its feet and walked about, sniffing the grass, and then disappeared from sight over the ridge. Its companion remained, seemingly staring at me, but I believe it wasn’t. It simply couldn’t see me against the sun shining into its eyes and making the field between us shine like a mirror. This conclusion seemed correct when, as I moved, it suddenly jumped to its feet and bounded for the ditch, 20m away, its fine, fat bush flying. It had seen me.

A raven croaked hoarsely overhead, and flew down to alight on a fence post above the deep cleft in the cliff where it and its mate nests each February. Yes, the nesting season for various bird species is just around the turning of the year; and when the birds nest, spring shortly follows. Ravens, herons and rooks are all early nesters, while swallows and swifts are late; they have a long journey to make to reach their Irish nesting sites from South Africa.

It was a morning of mild excitement in nature as I walked the cliffs fields above Courtmacsherry Bay, the lighthouse on the Old Head of Kinsale very white in the sunlight, silhouetted in the vivid light.

The sea was brilliant blue, the sky peerless. The fields sloping up from the cliffs were yellowed by the sun, with many birds foraging in the short grass, blackbirds dancing and thrushes parading; each using these vigorous movements to frighten insects out of cover and worms to turn so that they can be spotted and pinioned before being gulped down.

But in the placid world of dining thrushes, I noticed an unusual sight. At first I thought it was a raven fluttering above another raven, but a squint through my binoculars revealed that it was a rook and a grey crow in some sort of contretemps.

The rook seemed to have no argument with the grey crow, but not so, the other way around.

As the rook walked in the grass with that tail-swinging motion common to our ragged-trousered rooks (although this one was gleaming black and sometimes silvery in the sunlight as it moved) the grey crow (equally elegant in its grey-and-black plumage) would jostle it and then leap up and descend upon its back, legs outstretched and beak grabbing at the other crow’s nape as it descended.

The rook would struggle; it would turn over and lunge out with its legs while the grey crow bestrode it, the two wrestling for a few seconds as if in mating games. When they separated, the rook would march on, arrogantly ignoring its assailant, while the latter would again parallel it and jostle, and repeat the wrestling match once more.

Eventually, the grey crow flew off, tired of these games. The rook hadn’t weakened its resolve; it was going to continue foraging in that part of the field and no grey crow, however persistent, would stop it doing so.

As I watched this scene from the clifftop, a patch of gorse was flowering in gay exuberance over the cove behind me, the cleft where the ravens build and where five years ago, our dog, Nicky, fell to her death on the rocks beneath.

Later, as I walked along a beach, I reflected that while the wild, black-sand beaches of La Gomera in the Canary Islands I wrote about last week are indeed beautiful, it is hard to beat our big, west Cork strands in the bright sunshine of a winter’s day. The wet, black sand is littered with pure white shells, cockles, tallins and razor shells, and the rocks behind are colonised with a half-dozen varieties of dark brown sea-wrack, gleaming and sinuous in the sun.


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