CROWS – A NOISY PART OF HIGHBURY

Best Crow in Ash

The cawing of Crows can be heard from Highbury’s roofs, trees, chimney pots and television aerials. All the scraps from sandwiches, burgers, fish and chips dropped by football fans on Matchdays make this a good neighbourhood for the omnivore Crows, and they manage to find enough other provender to keep them going on non-Matchdays.

 

Crow on chimney aerial

‘…the role played by crows is a vital one, if we are not to be knee-deep in carrion and discarded sandwiches‘.

Richard Meyers, Nature’s Forgotten Folklore: Myths and Magic in Islington for Islington Council

crow-illustration

No 3 Young Crow stretching wingRow 1 No 1 Crow in Ash tree

Row 1 No 2 Crows nest in Ash, Crow crop
No 2 Crow on the roof, Summer Solstice
Ash Tree - Crows, parentingweb - Crow with youngster on gableweb - Crow youngster in mid-caw on gableweb - Crow on aerial, youngster on gable

On the week of the Summer Solstice, 2013, a noisy young Crow is being taught in Crow School by its parents.

 

HIGHBURY’S CHIEF CROW

 The loudest bird in this neighbourhood was always the Chief Crow : his caw had a mighty roar & a snarl about it. In 2001, the Chief Crow performed his courtship ritual in treetops level with my top floor window. Afterwards there were eggs, chicks, fledging, & the entire performance was played out again the following spring. Crows mate for life, say the bird books, & I assumed a similar ritual would be happening, year on year in the back garden treetops, every springtime. Never take these things for granted. 2003 was the last performance, as the avaricious developer moved in, trashing & burning everything in the back, including the old Elder tree where the Chief Crow performed his courting dance.

Had I had access to a video camera, there would be something to show here. But it can now only be told as a story.

THE CHIEF CROW’S COURTING TREE
The Chief Crow's Courting Tree

Crow and Crow’s nest in Ash, with Elder, Sycamore and other trees in winter

 

It was spring, 2001. North London streets echoed to the harsh calls of Highbury’s Chief Crow. He sat on the high metal struts over Highbury Stadium’s North Bank, his back to the football ground, proclaiming himself loudest & mightiest of all the Crows.

Crow

On Matchdays, over 38,000 humans crowded into the Stadium to watch the game. The noise THEY made billowed, deep and loud, out of the stands & round the neighbourhood streets. On Not-Matchdays there were only a few groundskeepers about, tending the grass of the Perfect Pitch, the finest in all of Europe. The Stadium then was a vast, quiet, empty space. The voice of the Chief Crow, whose name was Haak, sliced through the air, backed by the empty stadium. Only Concorde, the very BIG metal bird which passed overhead twice a day, was louder than he.

 

Spring was the time of courting rituals for many birds. The Chief Crow, though many years mated with his consort Ing, was keen to begin. He lifted off the North Bank superstructure, gliding smoothly & silently over the street, the terraced houses & their back gardens. There below him was the old Elder, his courting tree.

Elder sharpened

 
The Elder had grown as tall as an Elder can grow, but still it brought forth its white blossom discs each spring, & many small, tasty dark berries later in the year. Its topmost branches on one side had given up making leaves, & their wood was now dry and brittle. They leaned against one another when the wind blew, making soft, woody, creaking sounds, as though the Elder were speaking.

 

The Chief Crow hovered over the Elder, dropping down onto one of these dry, leafless branches. He looked across at his mate Ing, perched in the top of the great Ash, their Nesting Tree. He bowed to her, raised himself to his full height and rasped out four loud caws. Then he stretched his wings wide & snapped them shut, fanning his tail. He walked along the branch a few steps one way, then the other, & dipped his head. Again he spread his wings & tail, again he bowed. Then he leaned down to a dried branch, clamped his beak round it & pulled back. There was a loud crack! as it broke away from the Elder.

Haak bowed again to Ing, the broken branch clamped in his beak. He waved it about & rocked from side to side, opening & closing his wings & tail as she watched. Then, with the branch in his beak,  he spread his wings & lifted up into the air, gliding over to Ing on the fork of the Ash. He landed, bowed again &, tilting his head, looked up & offered her the Elder branch.

 

Ing looked at it. Such a present! It must surely be the finest branch any bird had ever given another! And presented with such ceremony, such dancing! She leaned forward & took it in her beak. Of course she would accept it! She pressed it against first one branch of the Ash, then another. Where should it go?

Chief Crow and Mrs Crow

In the end, the auspicious first branch for the new spring nest was placed carefully in the same fork of the Ash that had held last year’s nest… This was followed by much companionable preening and beak-butting between the Crows to mark another season of nestbuilding and egglaying. All was well with their world.

 

Haak and Ing built a new nest in the Ash every spring. They mated in it, had eggs, raised baby Crows & left the old nest to blow away in the winter storms. In summer they used the Ash as THEIR TREE, chasing away any birds who landed in it.

crows nest in ash with crow, closeup with leaves, spring 2014

2003 – THE OLD ELDER, OTHER TREES IN LITTLE WOODLAND CHOPPED DOWN BY PROPERTY DEVELOPER

In 2003 the old Elder tree, with surrounding wild Buddleia, mature Sycamores and other trees in the little woodland behind our houses, all were chopped down by a Property Developer, Paul Simon Developments Limited, who had bought the land. It happened over a Mayday Bank Holiday.

Neighbours joined together to fight the developer. After much time spent & aggravation endured, a Public Enquiry found against Paul Simon. But it was no help to the wildlife, who had all suffered losses – birds, foxes, small rodents, minibeasts, insects… And the Crows’ Courting Tree was gone.

 

Richard Meyer‘s Nature’s Forgotten Folklore: Myths and Magic in Islington (available from the Islington Ecology Centre, in person, while stocks last) tells of a tree spirit, the Elder Mother, who brings retribution to those who disrespect her tree. We can only wonder whether any punishment was dealt by her to the Haringey developers…

Haak & Ing found twigs & branches for subsequent nests from somewhere, as nests were built in years to come – new nests in the Nesting Tree. But we have missed the sound of the old Elder and the sight of the Crows’ courtship dance.

CROWS SEE BEGINNING OF THE END OF HIGHBURY STADIUM, PAY HOMAGE

In 2006, after Arsenal’s new Emirates Stadium had been finished a few streets away, the team abandoned the old Highbury Stadium. It was given over to McAlpines, to be pulled down and made into flats. Demolition began some time after the last game in August & carried on for several years.

On Saturday 6th November 2006, Matchday at the new Emirates, a helicopter hovered over the gathering fans around 12.30 near kick-off. Two crows were in the air as well, flying together over the old Highbury Stadium. They dipped down over Haak’s old proclaiming perch to show respect, then rose up & flew on…

2006 – CROWS NEST BLOWS AWAY IN WINTER

The Crows’ nest blew away that winter, as usual.

Crow's nest in snow, Ash, Feb 2008

2007 – CROWS NEST DOES NOT BLOW AWAY IN WINTER

In 2007, after another successful season with eggs hatching in a newly built nest, & new baby Crows on the scene, the Crows’ nest did NOT blow away in winter.

Ash and crows nest

2008 – CROWS NEST FAILS

In the Spring of 2008, sticks were added to the old nest, there was courtship & mating, & eggs were laid. The same as it ever was, but without the hatching of the eggs. A Crow sat waiting, watching, getting up, peering into the nest, rolling the eggs round again, yet more sitting… Both Crows together stood over the nest, looking into it for signs of life… But the eggs did not hatch. Days went by, a week… The nest failed. Disease? Parasites left in the old nest that hadn’t blown away? Eventually Haak and Ing deserted the nest in the Ash.

They may have set up a new nest in another tree; a young Crow was seen flapping & begging for food at the Crows’ nest in mid-June, but there was no sign of the parents returning to it.

 

Crows may live for over 19 years & seldom move more than a few kilometres from their nests.

 The RSPB Handbook of British Birds, Peter Holden & Tim Cleeves, 2002, Christopher Black, imprint of A & C Black.

 

 Author Robert Burton says that Crows “may divorce when a pair has failed to breed successfully.”

Garden Bird Behaviour, New Holland Publishers (UK) for the Wildlife Trusts 2006

 

So it appears that our many Highbury Crows could all be part of an extended family, with Haak & Ing perhaps as Patriarch & Matriarch, now divorced.

Another pair of Crows set up a nest a few years ago, in the same crook of the Ash that had always been used by the Chief Crow & his Consort. It was not a solid nest –  you could see the sky through parts of it. We thought they were only practicing, but they managed to raise a few young Crows that year… The Ash is still primarily the Crows’ tree, but nowadays they only land in it, perch on it and caw from it.