Sarah Todd: Mysterious deaths could be rough justice of a 'crow court'

BIRDS have been on our minds this week. We lost three hens to a dog. The animal's owner couldn't have done any more, coming clean straight away and giving our daughter some money towards the cost of replacing them. But it's been upsetting for the young poultry entrepreneur.

Between times, there was a hen that was "off it". Anyway; it was taken away from the others to build its strength back up. We put it back with the rest and all seemed to be okay for a few days. But the other morning it was found inside the coop all-but pecked to death. The phrase "hen pecked" had always, to me, meant a little bit of bullying. But this – the hen had a grotesque wound to the neck – was vicious. It's put me right off them. Anyway, the poor girl had to be dispatched. It's all been a sorry saga.

Some other feathered friends have been falling off their perches. It all started a week or so ago when we noticed a crow unable to fly in a neighbour's field. We've had two dead, all youngish and fairly healthy-looking, as has the couple down the road.

A farmer mentioned that it could all be to do with a "crow court" which we'd never heard of.

Anyway, a little research has shown up the following description, which seems to ring true with our deaths as beforehand there was an awful lot of noise and activity.

Apparently, a large group of the birds gather in an open space. After a while they move apart to leave a clear circle in the middle, into which one crow walks with its head bowed submissively. Up to this point it will have been noisy, but once the crow moves into the middle, the rest of the group falls into a sudden silence.

Next, the crow in the clearing begins to speak, cawing and muttering, and for as long as this goes on the rest of the birds are silent and relatively still. Eventually, though, the "defendant" bird falls silent, and at this point one of two things happens; either the court disperses, or a smaller group of up to half-a-dozen birds will pursue and kill the bird, with the entire group following if it makes a break for it. The noise is deafening. The defendant bird is killed as cleanly as possible, usually with blows to the head or neck.

Experts believe that with so many crows present, a crow court cannot be about food, territory or mating rights, and once the defendant bird has been killed the others leave the body untouched (unlike, say, road kill where they have no scruples about eating it).

A crows' court is, seemingly, behind other terms such as a murder of crows, a parliament of rooks and an unkindness of ravens.

Oh for a similar sorting out of dogs and horrible hens.

CW 29/5/10