Richard Collins: Albino rook who needed sheltered housing

Richard Collins: Albino rook who needed sheltered housing

The albino rook found one Sunday morning in Malahide, Co Dublin, during the mid 1970s.

Having the ‘right’ attire is important if you are a bird. Mute swan cygnets, for example, have grey-brown plumage but, very occasionally, an all-white one hatches. Its father, the cob, may tolerate the white youngster but some daddies will attack their unconventional offspring and drive it away. These ‘Polish morph’ swans occur very rarely in Ireland; I have seen only two during decades of fieldwork.

Only black lives matter for crows; ignoring the corvid dress-code might lead to banishment, or worse. Jackdaw attire is black and grey. Only the eyes are white; visible in the darkness of the nesting cavity, they warn rivals that the site is occupied.

An all-white jackdaw was seen in Carrigans on July 16. Had polite jackdaw society rejected it? There’s a precedent. One Sunday morning during the mid 1970s, the late George Burrows rang me; an all-white crow, he said, was on a playing field in Malahide. Heading there immediately, I saw what seemed to be a listless, possibly ill, bird.

Hoping to catch it, I set a 60ft mist-net against a hedge. The net was almost invisible but the crow wasn’t fooled; it swooped over the trap. Then a footballer threw his shirt over the bird, to cheers from onlookers. An Irish Times photographer captured the incident, not my finest bird-catching demonstration, alas! Examination in the hand showed that the bird was a recently-fledged rook.

Although underweight, it didn’t seem to be ill. Hand-fed, it ate voraciously and prospered. Unlike the Donegal jackdaw, which seemed to have some colour pigment, the Malahide rook had none. This was a true albino. But why had it starved?

Rooks, the commonest of the Irish crows, nest together in high-rise ‘rookeries’. The albino chick would have hatched within a structure of twigs, moss, and mud, located in the crown of a tall tree.

There were probably two or three ‘normal’ siblings in the nest. Both parents would have fed them. A rook chick’s eyes are fully open at around day 12 and the bird would have ventured onto branches around the nest when about 36 days old.

At that stage, its odd attire may have attracted the attention of its neighbours, the birds nesting nearby.

Rook society is hierarchical and co-operative. Sparrowhawks, buzzards, and herons, venturing too close to a rookery, are mobbed. Did the white fledgling receive similar treatment? Was it driven from the rookery? Fledged rooks are fed by their parents for up to six weeks after leaving the nest. If rejected, the albino would have to fend for itself, a tall order. Was this why it was so emaciated?

But what was I to do with the orphan? Releasing it to the wild would be a death sentence. A predator would soon kill it. Sheltered accommodation was needed, so I contacted Dublin Zoo. The keepers there placed the bird in a large open-air aviary among noisy macaws ibises and other exotics. They all lived happily ever after.

Although jackdaws breed colonially, they do so more loosely then rooks. Some pairs nest on their own. The Donegal bird, therefore, may not have been ostracised. It would, however, be at great risk from predators

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