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Thursday 25 June 2009

Rooks, Crows, Ravens and Jackdaws

Just an addition to the last post concerning a few of the crow family. I had not realised that rooks do not circle the fields or gather in noisy rookeries around ancient tree shrouded houses here in America, but then you do have the wonderful grackles. The crow family have a bad reputation all round, ominous heralds of bad things, spirits of the dead, witches companions etc etc. Just look at the old collective nouns, “A murder of crows” and “An unkindness of ravens”, the “thieving” jackdaws and “unlucky“ magpies. But, they are wonderful birds.

Rooks Corvus frugilegus it seems are mainly Europeans. It’s easy to know a rook from a crow or a raven because rooks have bald beaks, crows, a similar size, have dark beaks with a few feathers at the base, and ravens are big, with very feathery beaks. Jackdaws, delightful little birds, have a grey hood. In appearance rooks often seem rather tatty with ruffled feathers.

Great photo by Charlie from 10,000, here.


Only last night on BBC America (which, incidentally, delivers and endlessly repeats 90% of the very worst of what the BBC has to offer, great showcase BBC!!! Why??) Gordon Ramsey was out in the woods, cooking rook pie which he declared to be better than pigeon.

Rooks make Hooks
Rooks are very intelligent birds as are all of the crow family. There is delightful bit of recent film of a rook making a hook, to pull a little basket containing a grub out of a glass tube. Clever clever.. see it at here.

Carrion Crow Corvus corone

Wonderful Crow photo from F Tachosaur at Bird Post here


Crows have dark beaks with a few feathers and are a similar size to the Rooks, but you can see how different they are in form to the Raven below.

They are wonderful subjects for “the dark”. I have always especially liked Leonard Baskin’s illustrations for Ted Hughes’ poetry. This crow definitely veers towards the raven.

A drawing of a crow.

The Error, (Crow), by Leonard Baskin from Capriccio, poems by Ted Hughes and engravings by Leonard Baskin, published by The Gehenna Press, 1990.

Raven Corvus corax,

raven painted desert

I photographed this raven in the Painted Desert back in September. You can see the feathery beak quite well. There is definitely something strange about these magnificent birds, something slightly unnerving. They silently materialise, solo, and watch you and they are very big. It wasn’t there when we arrived and we were the only people at this particular pull in so, we, alone, were the focus of this bird’s attention. We drove on another few miles and stopped again in the Petrified Forest and there it was again. Of course I am sure the ravens are fed by the tourists but their presence in this desolate but beautiful landscape seemed very appropriate.

The Uk’s most famous ravens “protect” the Tower of London.
From Wiki …
It had been thought that there have been at least six ravens in residence at the tower for centuries. It was said that Charles II ordered their removal following complaints from John Flamsteed, the Royal Astronomer. However, they were not removed because Charles was then told of the legend that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the White Tower, the monarchy and the entire kingdom would fall. Charles, following the time of the English Civil War, superstition or not, was not prepared to take the chance, and instead had the observatory moved to Greenwich.

The oldest raven ever to serve at the Tower of London was called Jim Crow, who died at the age of 44”


The Tower's Yeoman raven master, Derrick Coyle with one of the ravens
Image: © Natasha Marie Brown/HRP/, from here

They also have names, namely; Hardey, Thor, Odin, Gwyllum, Cedric, Hugine and Munin...on a macabre note, as well as their daily ration of raw meat, they have bird biscuits soaked in blood.

You can buy Thor... I have rather fallen in love with him, suitable for children over 3 :) , see the Tower of London website here. Judging by his beak he has just enjoyed a couple of the above biscuits..


Jackdaw Corvus monedula

Some snowy jackdaws by Vishnevskiy Vasily at

A real favourite little bird who is bandbox smart and has a comical way of bouncing across the ground. I haven’t seen so many on my recent visits home.

The jackdaw was immortalised in the classic Victorian narrative poem The Jackdaw of Rheims from the Ingoldsby Legends written in 1839 by Thomas Ingoldsby , a pen-name of Richard Harris Barham. It tells the story of a cheeky jackdaw who steals the Cardinal’s ring:

In and out
Through the motley rout,
That little Jackdaw kept hopping about;
Here and there
Like a dog in a fair,
Over comfits and cates,
And dishes and plates,
Cowl and cope, and rochet and pall,
Mitre and crosier! he hopp'd upon all

The thief is cursed and a hunt for the ring ensues. When the Sacristan sees the jackdaw, at less than his best. the culprit is found.

His feathers all seem'd to be turn'd the wrong way;--
His pinions droop'd -- he could hardly stand,--
His head was as bald as the palm of your hand

The ring is retrieved and all is well.
It's a fun poem especially for kids and the cursing sequence is particularly good…..

See full text here

It seems a curious subject for a set of china but Royal Doulton produced a series of pieces telling the story.

doulton plate l184_4

On the back of the jug you can just see the jackdaw, having forsworn his thieving ways..being canonised, a moral lesson to us all.. :)

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Monday 22 June 2009

“Fat Brown” Scarecrow and Beastly Birds

Lincolnshire is a county of infinite beauty and endless diversity. From coastline to fenland, to rolling hills and ancient settlements. I have lived in the north in the Wolds, in the middle at the foot of the great Cathedral of Lincoln and in the south on the border of the fens. I have lived in the city and in the villages and I have appreciated them all. The south was where I started photographing scarecrows and where the ideas for a book began to take shape.

Here is Fat Brown one of the earliest scarecrows I photographed. A typical chilly January morning, a low sun and a white rime of frost on the kale and the overalls of this expansive scarecrow,who seems to be tripping lightly across the field. I had seen this one from quite a distance, my attention caught by the sun shining on the old fertilizer bag.

What, you might ask, do these optimistic, brave and lonely figures hope to achieve? Their presumed target, crows, don’t actually disturb the crops too much. While pigeons do love cabbage, and rooks will pull up young corn, crows prefer a solitary meal of grubs.

Rooks though are really delightful birds. I have always been very fond of them ..not to eat you understand, although rook pie was a good Lincolnshire country food. They are funny and sinister and glossy and noisy. They flap and wheel around the house, nest in the big trees and strut around the garden in that self important way they have. I have drawn them many times.

The scarecrow here was inspired by probably the most sinister one I photographed.. Down on the fen in a field I found this terrible creature, a true thing of nightmares, definitely not to be encountered at dusk. Due to the handless, legless state he was in, he became known as Amputee .. the goggles just make for an extra frisson of the macabre.

When the scarecrow is unsuccessful, a hapless rook is sometimes shot and hung from a stick in the field, a grim but ineffectual warning to others, but generally the farmers leave them alone and they can be seen mooching about in little groups in the fields, bickering and digging in the soil and generally being very entertaining.

All illustrations from " Scarecrow" copyright Val Littlewood

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Saturday 20 June 2009

Thing of the Day: A Mystery Posting and a Scarecrow.

I am almost back to posting, and had my elbow jogged by Feedburner sending out a old post about the Mickey Mouse plant yesterday, completely unbidden! …so apologies to email subscribers. One reason for the long gap has also been the problems with the email feeds from Blogger which, if the recipient was using Outlook, were causing computers to hang. Thankfully this seems to have been resolved but for some time I just gave up trying to read my email subscriptions. Now, since Google has taken over Feedburner I am not quite sure who, if anyone, will get Pencil and Leaf emails. My Feedburner account seems inaccessible and it's all very frustrating very boring and horribly time consuming.

A quick update: just to let you know I haven’t been twiddling my thumbs or lying by the pool :)…

1. New apartment found, packing boxes waiting to be filled, much stuff thrown out, we move next weekend.

2. Exhibiton at Leu comes down Tuesday (bad timing).

3. Short printmaking course started for fun.

4. Much wrestling with Photoshop, tiffs and bitmaps to convert some B/W artwork for letterpress plates. Exciting small book project underway.


But.. meanwhile a scarecrow as promised in my last distant post…. This is a scraperboard drawing of a scarecrow I called Duffle Coat. Duffle Coat is one of many scarecrows I photographed about 20 years ago while researching for a small children’s book. An exciting discovery in the attic on my last UK visit was an old folder containing envelopes of these photographs.
I have long been fascinated by scarecrows, but not the awful, cutesy contrived scarecrows of the, now numerous, scarecrow festivals or the garden centre or the craft store. Mine were real scarecrows, working scarecrows, made by farmers, out in all weathers with a job to do.

It is debatable how efficient they are. My general conclusion was, that while they do not work for the birds, they do have an unnerving effect on the unwary motorist or countryside walker. They appear as strange apparitions in a misty early morning, striding across the landscape, trudging through rising corn, abandoned in an old barn or just propped up by a hedge. Figures made of sticks and cloth, plastic and tin cans and old cast off clothes. Some so realistic as to be a reincarnation of the farmer himself, some stripped down and abstracted to the nth degree, a simple cross of sticks with some flapping fabric. It is easy to mistake even this basic scarecrow for a person, as our human programming constantly and anxiously scans our surroundings for other humans, always on the look out for either friends or foes.

Over the next few days, between packing, I will be posting a few of my favourite photographs and illustrations from the book, with, of course, a bit of scarecrow information and history.

scarecrow 1

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Saturday 6 June 2009

Leaf of the Day: The UK .. Digging, Moving, and a Slight Hiatus

Here I am back in the USA, sketch book almost completely empty, but head completely full of ideas inspirations and possible directions. "Leaf of the Day" may have to become "Thing of the Day".. or even just "Thing of the Month".

UK Things:
Most of the trip seemed to be spent in the hire car, trying to keep to the correct side of the road and admiring the beautiful May countryside through sheets of driving rain, while visiting old friends and relatives.

I learnt many things on this trip:

*The origin of the Chelsea Physic Garden.
*The use of chicken's feet skin in bookbinding with very beautiful results.
*Quite a bit about charcoal burning and 'chicken in the woods'.
*Huge Indian mice and Ganesh.
*The problems of sourcing real English apples for a farm shop in Lincs.
*More about the far from grim, Grimsthorpe Castle.

I so enjoyed these things, (in no particular order);

*The warm and welcoming company of old friends and family.
*The joy of a real prize winning Pork Pie from Mr Thorpe, real Lincolnshire Sausages and fish and chips.
*The snowy beauty of the hedges white with May blossom, Horse chestnuts blossom and kecksey ( cow parsley)
*Regent's Park on a beautiful summer day with my good friends Dorothy and Jill.
*London for all its wonderful treasures, specialist shops, great pubs and cafes.
*Catching up with my friend Dy over soup and a roll in Bloomsbury.
*The privilege of visiting London's stunningly wonderful Museums for free.
*My sister's hidden treasure of a sheet music shop, Counterpoint, in Lincoln, (although found and much appreciated by Louis de Bernier.)
*My friend Kate's really excellent, specialist and aclaimed cheese shop "The Cheese Society" also in Lincoln.
*Seeing the Bookbinders exhibition at the Flow Gallery...more of this later.
*The big skies and tiny distant church spires of Lincolnshire.
*Huddling on Big Stone in High Bentham with my friend Gill, in borrowed anorak and wellies, in the chilly darkening evening, while clutching a beer, listening to curlews and peewits crying out over the moor.
*Meeting up with my wonderful dog sitters of ten years ago, Stan and Barbara.
*Sitting in a tiny old Derbyshire cottage and having tea with an old friend at a local Church Flower Festival.
*Listening to my Dad (91) admitting he had a friend with a gorgeous red sports car ( Jaguar ss 100) in the late 1930's with whom he used to go to Blackpool from Leeds on weekends when they were flush!

I failed to do these things:

*Sketching :)
*Get to Scotland

In between I did some heavy duty gardening for my Father. It was sheer joy for me to be out in those cool mornings..light at 3.30.. accompanied by the singing birds, biting east wind and fine drizzle. Best activity? ... digging. To be precise, digging out one of Dad's excellent compost heaps, more of that later.

I have actually been back for 2 weeks but due to pressing economic necessity we have been trying to find a cheaper apartment. We are moving from shoe box to matchbox. The next step will be the cardboard box on the street corner or the workhouse, but we remain optimistic. It is at this point in my life that I realise the mistakes I made of; A, not training to be a nurse, they seem to be able to work anywhere and; B, not marrying a very rich man.

Creatively things are just on hold while I regroup..
"Hiatus" is the best word for this little break and has some interesting definitions ie:
"Suspension: an interruption in the intensity or amount of something"
or "Latin = a gap, (like that between some people's ears)" or the gap between the covers of my sketchbook!

Back soon with some fond discoveries in the attic, regarding scarecrows....

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