Wheatears and Hoodie Crows

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Wheatear families in abundance

The hill is a storm of birds. Churning clouds of pipits and larks are on the move through the heather; they’re heading who knows where, but surely away from here. Come abruptly round a contour and flush seventy small shapes into the wind; a few of them complain, but most bend themselves to the task of escape. Sometimes there’s a merlin amongst them, and now a hen harrier comes to rake the rushes and punish the late starters.

The dykes in the lower fields are sparky and bright with families of wheatears which bob and swirl across the short grass. They have done well, and their arses flare loudly in the turning sun. It won’t be long before they leave us and head down to East Africa to ply their trade with the Masai.

In walking home, I kicked up a cluster of a dozen crows from the roadside; idle youngsters with time to kill. There’s an odd wrinkle of language around crows like these in Galloway. An ornithologist would call them “carrion crows” (corvus corone), and I was taught to call them “corbies”. But there’s a competing school of local dialect which insists that they should be called “hooded crows” instead. When I was training to be a gamekeeper, my boss corrected me on this point several times, but I never quite managed to pick up the habit of calling them “hoodies”. And that’s because hooded crows (corvus cornix) are something else; the highland crow, with a grey breast, black head and black wings.

Carrion crows and hooded crows occupy precisely the same niche and they sometimes hybridise, but for the most part they live in separate places and do not usually overlap. Carrion crows live in the south and east of Scotland, and hooded crows stay in the north and west. Why some people in the south of Scotland should call carrion crows hoodies is beyond me.

And the reason this tangent emerges is because amongst the black carrion crows which rose from the roadside, there was a hooded crow. And I thought to record the sighting here because in over a decade on that hill, this is only the second true “hoodie” I’ve ever seen here. Perhaps it’s a vagrant from over the Clyde; perhaps it’s a throwback from some old hybridisation. Either way, it set me puzzling as I pushed on down the glen.



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