Walls, windows and a mid-morning cuppa break were no defence against a rising rush of sound that demanded investigation. The hiss and swish, like a battering hailstorm but on a blue-sky day, arose from somewhere out of doors. It flushed us out into the back garden – a mistake. A dozen or so jackdaws zipped over, and they were heading for the main action, towards a swell that came from over the other side of the rooftop.
We raced back through the house and opened the front door to a sky darkened with crows. I hazarded a hundred, but it could have been twice that number. The jackdaws flocked by disciplined instinct and swilled around half a dozen lime trees, quilting the air with vapourless trails. A few carrion crows mingled among them, but they abided by no rules, often beating across the jackdaw traffic. I saw one lumpen hulk of a crow collide with its smaller cousin, sending it into an open-winged cartwheel. The magpies stayed true to their ancestry as forest birds and jumped, as if nervously, from branch to branch.
The sight was as nothing compared with the mob music that brayed out of this soup of corvids. The daws lengthened their “jack” calls, lacing them with excitement or anxiety; some even gave orgiastic yelps. One of the magpies sank its familiar high ack-ack rattle into a low slow drill, a purr with menace. The crows – well, I couldn’t hear them above the din.
What was all this commotion about? Round and round the limes circled the crows, an audience looking for an event. A man passing with two perplexed-looking sons in tow offered a witness statement: “The magpies have got something dead on the roof.” But we could see nothing at all on any roof. The accused in black and white had ganged up by now, seven for a secret never to be told perching on the rungs of one lime, while two for joy occupied its neighbour. They fell silent, and waited.
Nothing to see, move on. The clamour overhead had dropped to a hush, the birds melted away. The tension had gone out of the scene, the heat had gone out of my teacup.