Raven

The Raven is the largest of the crow family. It is huge, really huge, and hangs out in desolate places, like sea cliffs, mountain crags, upland moors, and the Tower of London. As the Tower was where people got their heads chopped off and Ravens were often seen eating carrion on battlefields (eating the dead bodies), it understandably features in a lot of legends associated with death. Even their collective name is an unkindness. Superstition has it that if the Ravens leave the Tower of London, the Crown and Britain will fall.

The Raven is Buzzard sized. It is all black with shaggy throat feathers, a flat-looking head and huge black, people eating bill. The long wings have fingered ends, and the tail is a distinctive diamond shape. The Raven can look like a cross in the sky. They have a powerful, majestic, 'don't mess with me, I ate your ancestors' flight. Flying Ravens can be distinguished from other crows by their tail shape, larger wing area, and a more stable soaring style, which generally involves a lot less flapping. Their call is a deep, loud "kronk, kronk".

They feed mainly on the ground, eating mammals, small birds, carrion, insects, grains, berries, fruit, and eggs. They are clever enough to store food when it is plentiful and have been seen calling wolves to the site of a dead animal. The wolves open the carcass, leaving the scraps more accessible for the clever Raven.

Once paired, Ravens tend to nest together for life. They will have 4 or 5 nest sites in their territory and select their favourite one in February. The twig nests are usually on a cliff edge or in a tree. The 3-7 eggs hatch after 20 days and the youngsters can fly 45 days later but depend on their parents for a long 4-6 months.

There are 8,000 breeding pairs, mainly found in the western half of Britain, especially Wales. In winter, northern birds will move south, forming large communal roosts outside the breeding season. Ravens can be very long-lived, especially in captive or protected conditions. Individual birds at the Tower of London have lived for over 40 years, though normal Raven life expectancy is 23 years.

Their Latin name is 'corvus corax' from the Latin 'corvus' for 'raven' and the Greek 'korax' meaning 'raven' or 'crow'.

Jay

The Jay is the East End Gangster of the bird world with his flash clothes and harsh, husky voice. The most glamorous of the crow family, the Jay likes coniferous and deciduous woods, and even town parks with enough mature trees, though oak trees are his favourite. He demands money with menaces, terrorising the local birds by stealing their eggs and chicks. A nasty piece of work.

A little smaller than a Woodpigeon, the Jay has a pinkish fawn body, a rounded head with a pale streaked crest, and a small, black, jaunty, gangster moustache. He has white barred patches and bright electric blue patches on his wings, a long black tail and a white rump. In flight, the wings look broad and rounded and the black tail with white rump is distinctive. For something looking so pretty, the call is a harsh, startling screech like a very heavy smoker. The godfather super plus.

Jays eat insects and seeds (acorns being a big favourite), as well as eggs and young chicks, which makes them unpopular with other birds and gamekeepers. They will often bury acorns to eat later but, like a knucklehead gangster, they sometimes forget where they have put them and, through this, they help the distribution of oak trees. They can carry dozens of acorns in their crops. Similar to other crows, Jays are intelligent, sly, cunning, and can run a good protection racket.

They start nesting in April, building their twig nests in trees and lining them with finer material. The 5-7 eggs hatch after 16 days and are fed by both mum and dad for 8 weeks. The youngsters can fly after 21 days and soon get their own sharp suits.

There are 170,000 breeding pairs of Jays in Britain. They are mainly sedentary, staying in the same area, but will move if there are shortages of food. The oldest Jay was 17 years old and knew the Kray twins. Their Latin name is 'garrulus glandarius' where 'garrulus' means 'noisy' and 'glandarius' means 'of acorns', their favoured food. Birds pay the protection money and run.

Cuckoo

We generally welcome the Cuckoo's call as a sign of spring, though I am not sure many little birds are quite as happy about their arrival. They are summer visitors and well-known brood parasites; the females laying their eggs in the nests of other birds, especially Meadow Pipits, Dunnocks and Reed Warblers. Unsurprisingly, Cuckoos are mainly found in the areas where these little birds live: reed beds, moorland, woodland and farmland, and not in built-up city centres. When not here, they hang out in the African forests discussing their dastardly deeds.

The Cuckoo is the size of a pigeon and can look a bit like a Sparrowhawk when flying as it has similar stripes. The upper parts, head and breast are plain blue grey. The under parts are white with black barring. The bill is short and curved. The tail is rounded with a white tip and they hold the wings 'drooped' when perched. The Cuckoo is named after its call, which sounds "Cuck-coo" and is intended to ring out over vast distances. It's sometimes referred to as a stud-post call. It is the male Cuckoo imploring a female to seek him out for a bit of fun at the expense of others.

Cuckoos feed mainly on insects, especially hairy caterpillars which other birds avoid as they taste horrid.

The female Cuckoo finds a victim's nest and, when they are not looking, takes out one of their eggs and puts her own in its place. The female Cuckoo needs secrecy for this to succeed, because if the victim sees her at the nest they become suspicious and closely check their eggs. She glides down to the nest from a hidden lookout perch, removes an egg, lays her own in its place, and is off – all within 10-seconds! Cuckoos can lay eggs that look just like those being replaced, which is a very neat trick. They lay up to 25 eggs in a season which is a lot of poor victims. As she departs, she often gives a chuckle call, as if in triumph. This is perhaps the best trick of all. The chuckle is similar to the rapid call notes of a Sparrowhawk, and it diverts the victim's attention away from noticing that an egg has been swapped.

The young Cuckoo hatches after 12 days and instinctively pushes all the other young and eggs out of the nest so only it is left to be fed. It leaves the nest after 19 days and demands to be fed for a further 3 weeks before making its way back to Africa.

About 15,000 pairs visit Britain from April to August. They are widespread but thinly scattered. The Cuckoo is declining partly due to difficulties on their migration route and partly due to the lack of caterpillars caused by changes in agriculture. They are incredible travellers. A young Cuckoo, having been raised on its own in the nest of another bird, will find its way unaided back to central Africa. Most Cuckoos leave us in July and initially fly across to Southern Europe. They then feed up before the next step of their journey, a gruelling 3,000km (1,875 miles) crossing of the Mediterranean and the Sahara. A lot don't make it. Their population decline has made them a Red List species.

Their Latin name is 'cuculus canorus' where 'cuculus' is Latin for 'cuckoo' and 'canorus' means 'to sing'. Calculating conman would be better. From cuckoo, we get 'cuckold' which is someone tricked into bringing up a child that is not their own.

Carrion Crow

Carrion Crows, like undertakers, love to dispose of dead bodies (carrion) and hence their name. A group of Carrion Crows is called a ‘murder’ which is a brilliant description of an undertakers convention (and probably what it is like). They are anti-social birds keeping themselves to themselves or staying in pairs, though they can form small flocks when looking for bodies in parks or on beaches. Like other crows, they show intelligent behaviour.

The Carrion Crow is all black and neater looking than a Rook with a broad crown, curved black bill, black feet, and short looking head with a flat low forehead. When flying the wings are oblong, broadening at the tip, and the tail looks square. The wings are held straight in their sedate, straight flight with little soaring.

The Carrion Crow calls when perched or in flight with a hard edged “kaarr”. They usually repeated their call several times in succession, compared to a Rook who calls only once. The Carrion Crow’s call can sound malevolent, which is its function, saying “I am master of ceremonies here.”

Like other crows, the Carrion Crow will eat just about anything: insects, grain, small animals, carrion, and even shellfish, which they drop onto roads or rocks to open. They feed on the ground and walk or hop when finding their food. They are scavengers by nature so enjoy rubbish tips for a bit of tasty household waste. Carrion Crows will also harass birds of prey or even foxes to pinch their kills and get a dead body. Both birds build the nest of sticks lined with softer plant material high in a tree, a tall building or even a pylon. They do not nest in colonies like Rooks. The 2-7 eggs hatch after 18 days and the young can fly 32 days later. The youngsters become fully independent after a further 3-5 weeks once they can croak psalm 23 (The Lord is my Shepherd) and follow a hearse. The parents are very protective of their kids and will actively harass predators and competitors that enter their territory who threaten them or their offspring, engaging in mobbing behaviour to defend themselves.

The Carrion Crow is a sedentary resident with 1 million pairs found everywhere from towns to remote islands and their numbers are stable. Their Latin name is ‘corvus corone’ which comes from the Latin ‘corvus’ meaning ‘raven’ and the Greek ’korone’ meaning ’crow’.

Rook

Rooks always look a bit mean, like the Ebenezer Scrooge of birds. You can just see them in fingerless gloves, stingily sharing out any food. A group of Rooks is called a parliament which clinches it. Like other crows, they are intelligent, with complex behavioural traits and an ability to solve simple problems like double-entry book-keeping.

Slightly smaller than a Carrion Crow, the Rook has an all-black plumage with an iridescent sheen when seen up close. The key identifying feature is the grey-white skin at the base of its long, pointed beak, as if he was too much of a skinflint to pay for an all black beak like the Carrion Crow's. The Rook has a 'peaked' crown that is more noticeable when they are agitated and a 'baggy trouser' look to the feathers around its legs. Rooks are very sociable birds and are rarely seen on their own (hence the old adage, "One be crow, two be rooks"). In winter, they feed and roost in large flocks, often together with Jackdaws. In flight, their wing tips are 'fingered' and the base of the wing narrows where it joins the body. The tail is wedge-shaped. Their flight tends to be direct and purposeful.

Rooks have a raucous "caw" or "kaah" call and it is usually spoken in singles (unlike a Carrion Crow which calls in threes and fours - think one 'R' in Rook and three 'Rs' in Carrion Crow). Rooks are as vocal as they are social, living in large rookeries of tens, sometimes hundreds of nests at the top of tall trees. The largest known rookery in Aberdeenshire contained over 2000 nests!

Rooks will eat almost anything, including worms, grain, nuts and insects, small mammals, birds (especially eggs and nestlings) and carrion. Foraging mostly takes place on the ground, with the birds striding or hopping about and probing the soil with their powerful beaks. In more urban areas, they will eat human food scraps from rubbish dumps and off the streets, usually in the early hours or at dusk when it is relatively quiet. They will peck open garbage sacks when out scavenging to find anything they can for free. Rooks have even been trained to pick up litter at a theme park in France (but wanted to be paid for it).

Male and female Rooks pair-bond for life and the pairs stay together within the flocks. They normally build their nests in February or March, but may start as early as January. The male selects the nest site and begins building before the female joins in. Nests are built high in the trees of a rookery and made of twigs and branches held together with mud and tufts of grass and lined with moss and leaves. Twigs are broken off trees or pinched from nearby nests, whichever is cheapest.

Typically, 2-5 eggs are laid, hatching after 16 days. The youngsters will stay in the nest for just over a month until they can fly. They continue to be fed by both parents for 6 weeks. Rooks can gather food for their young and store it in a special pouch under their bill so nobody can steal it.

There are 1.2m pairs of Rooks in Britain and the number is increasing as they are no longer persecuted by farmers (who now know that the insects the Rooks feed on are harmful to their crops). The northern Rook population migrates south in winter. In North Scotland, Rooks leave the uplands because it is too cold to stay there without wearing a kilt, which costs too much. The Rook's main requirement for living accommodation is tall trees, so they can be found just about anywhere except built-up, treeless city areas. The oldest known Rook lived to be 20 years old.

Their Latin name is 'corvus frugilegus' where 'corvus' means 'raven', and 'frugilegus' means 'fruit-gathering'. It is derived from 'frux' or 'frugis', meaning 'fruit', and 'legere', meaning 'to pick'. The English-language common name 'Rook' is ultimately derived from the bird's harsh call (if you say it in a funny way, with an outrageous country accent).

Jackdaw

The Jackdaw, with his grey hood and black cap, can look a bit like the magistrate of the birds, though in fact he is more of a thief, with his love of pinching shiny things.

Smaller than a Carrion Crow, the Jackdaw is a stocky bird with a grey 'hood' and steely grey eye.  They are most often seen in pairs or flocks known as a "clattering" and usually mixed up with Rooks or Starlings, like a black bird brotherhood. They form communal roosts and can be found anywhere from farmland to the seashore. Their main call is "Jack", like their name, and they say it as if happy or excited. In fact, Jackdaws have a complicated system of communication using combinations of different postures and calls. They are highly intelligent, so getting into your bird feeder for a snack is child's play. The Jackdaw's flight is light and agile. The wing 'fingers' rarely show, so the wings look rounded at the end when compared to a Rook or Carrion Crow.

The Jackdaw feeds mainly on the ground and walks or hops along while eating insects, grain, seeds, fruit, berries, eggs and even young birds. They are happy to scavenge on rubbish tips and will eat most human scraps from a bird table. They are not fussy eaters but have dreadful table manners and will hide food to enjoy later.

Jackdaws are very loyal and will pair up with a lifelong mate, snuggling up to one another on the nest and preening each other. When ready to start a family, they both build the nest which is made of sticks lined with wool, hair or other soft material. They nest with other Jackdaws in loose colonies, usually in trees, but they can use cliffs, the tops of buildings, or a comfy chimney - which is annoying when they block yours (and why chimneys are fitted with cowls). The female incubates the 4-6 pale blue-green darkly speckled eggs for 18 days. Both parents feed the young which remain in the nest for 32 days before they can fly. It is a further week before the youngsters can fly well enough to strut their stuff on the rubbish tip.

Jackdaws are both resident and migratory, moving south from the bleaker upland areas of Britain, joining their Northern Continental cousins who pop over in the winter and go home in spring. This is why there seems to be more in winter. There are 1.4 million pairs in Britain and the numbers are increasing. The oldest ringed Jackdaw lived to be 14.

The Jackdaw's Latin name is 'corvus monedula' where 'corvus' means 'raven' and the 'monedelua' part comes from their liking of bright shiny objects. It is derived from the Latin for 'money'. Some Italian thieves once exploited this and trained a tame Jackdaw to steal money from cash machines! So a Jackdaw is a money raven. The jury is out on where their English name came from. Some say the 'Jack' part comes from 'Jack' meaning rogue while others say it is from the sound of their call.

An ancient Greek and Roman adage runs "The Swans will sing when the Jackdaws are silent", meaning that educated or wise people speak only after the foolish have become quiet. It is a bit mean to call an intelligent bird like the Jackdaw uneducated. In some cultures, a Jackdaw on the roof is said to predict a new arrival; while in others, a Jackdaw settling on the roof or flying down a chimney is an omen of death. In the Fens, seeing a Jackdaw on the way to a wedding is a good omen for a bride, but Fen people have always been a bit odd.

Magpie

The Magpie is a handsome, long-tailed, black and white bird normally seen singly or in pairs. They are the Al Capones of the neighbourhood and are widely considered to be very intelligent. The Magpie's head and breast are a dull black, the wings a glossy deep blue, while the long wedge-shaped tail is dark with hints of green, blue and purple. It has a big white shoulder patch, a white belly and white wing tips. A true, old style, well-dressed gangster in his spats. They tend to keep their distance, in case you are the 'law', so it is hard to see their wonderful iridescent colours. They have a gravelly, chattering song like an old-fashioned football rattle. Telling you to back off if you know what's good for you.

Like all gangsters, the Magpie has a simple hunting style. They just look around the neighbourhood for something to eat and soon learn the places that will let them eat for free. Being a hard man, they will eat just about anything including insects, fruit, seeds, carrion (dead animals and road kill), eggs, small birds (who haven't paid their protection money), and even dog poo (you don't mess with someone who eats poo!) The Magpie will store food by hiding it and are very good at remembering where it is, and where you live. They walk and hop with a swagger along the ground when looking for food (and victims). Like all mobsters, the Magpie is partial to a bit of bling and will often take shiny things to put in the nest. Their liking for eggs and young birds has not made the Magpie a big fan with gamekeepers.

Both birds help build the substantial domed nest made of twigs, branches and mud with an entrance at the side (well, you have to have a flashy house when you are a big cheese). They position the nest high up in a tree or tall bush and line it with softer material. The 3-9 eggs are laid from late March onwards and hatch after 21 days. The youngsters can fly after 24 days but usually hang around with 'the family' for a month or more.

Magpies generally stay on their patch, not moving far afield into other gang territory. The Magpie is a member of the crow family, but it ends there. They have an ongoing turf war with their brothers, the Carrion Crow, which they hate (even though the Carrion Crow generally wins). In winter, Magpies can form large flocks of up to 100 birds though more typically 5-25 birds called a parliament (or alternatively a mob).

They are a widespread, common resident with about 600,000 pairs in Britain. The oldest known ringed bird (the 'godfather') lived to be 21 years old. The number of Magpies are on the increase as they spread into urban areas for richer pickings.

The Magpie's Latin name is ’pica pica’ which means 'magpie magpie' (just to make the point). The English name comes from 'mag' short for Margaret, an old slang term for a chattering woman, and pie from pied meaning multi coloured. You will swim with the fishes, though, if you ever call them a noisy old hag.