It must be something to do with those big Norfolk skies. In most years there is at least one book on British natural history that you can read for pleasure, but seldom more than one. This summer sees three: Wildwood, by the late Roger Deakin, Richard Mabey's forthcoming Beechcombings, and Mark Cocker's fabulous Crow Country. All are written in the first person, all describe a personal journey or exploration of some kind and all are based on the same small corner of England, near the Norfolk/Suffolk border. Has the Norfolk Broads become the new Lakeland?
Crow Country is, for Mark Cocker, the wooded banks of the lower Yare and Waveney, noted for their large roosts of rooks. For it is rooks, rather than their fellow jackdaws, magpies, jays or carrion crows, that have captured Cocker's imagination since moving to a damp, leylandii-shaded house in the area six years ago. They offer "a way of plucking meaning and value from the day" as he splashes through the marshy landscape trying doggedly to work out what the birds are up to, and why.
Rooks are sociable birds. In Cocker's words, they "live, feed, sleep, fly, display, roost, recreate, fall sick and die in the presence of their own kind". They are also intelligent. They won the coveted TV "Birdbrain of the Year" recently for their skilful way with binbags at motorway service stations. Their call - the English call it a caw, the Scots a "craa", while the Anglo-Saxons thought it sounded like "hroc" - is familiar enough to be virtually compulsory (along with the nightingale) in BBC rural dramas.
Yet, familiar as they are, near neighbours to almost anyone living outside central London, we don't know them very well. As Cocker puts it, "they are not what you think they are". For example, why do rooks spend an hour or more of precious midwinter daylight in flight when they desperately need to feed up as much as possible? …