Rooks are common European corvids, slightly smaller than crows, with longer, narrower bills. They nest in colonies--true "rookeries." Farmers in Great Britain have long debated their merits. As with common crows in the U.S, few doubted that rooks could cause great harm to agriculture during certain times of year. The question was whether they did enough good in harmful insect control to balance their depredations. Some farming communities deliberately protected rooks, though most seemed to see them as the enemy. [See an earlier WW post].
The influential nature writer John Knapp (1829) was one who came to the rooks' defense. He argued that while rooks were often perceived as grain eaters, they greatly preferred insects, particularly harmful grubs, and only bothered the farmers' productions out of desperation. His sympathetic language describing the plight of the rook is worthy of note:
It has at times great difficulty to support its life...and in a hot day we see the poor birds perambulating the fields, and wandering by the sides of the highways, seeking for and feeding upon grasshoppers, or any casual nourishment that may be found.....In the hot summer of 1825, many of the young brood of the season perished from want; the mornings were without dew, and consequently few or no [dew] worms were to be obtained; and we found them dead under the trees, having expired on their roostings....The old birds seemed to suffer without complaint; but the wants of their offspring were expressed by the unceasing cry of hunger, and pursuit of their parents for supply, and our fields were scenes of daily restlessness and lament. Yet, amid all this distress, it was pleasing to observe the perseverance of the old birds in the endeavor to relieve their famishing families, as many of them remained out searching for food quite in the dusk, and returned to their roosts long after the usual period for retiring....In this extremity it becomes a plunderer [my emphasis], to which by inclination it is not much addicted, and resorts to our newly set potato fields, digging out the cuttings....the request of my neighbors now and then for a bird from my rookery, to hang up in terrorem in their fields, is confirmatory of its bad name…In hard frosts, it is pinched again, visits for food the banks of streams, and in conjunction with its congener the "villain crow," becomes a wayfaring bird, and seeks a dole from every passing steed.
By the early 1800s, "rookery" had become a slang word for British slums. It is not hard to see the frame of poverty in Knapp's call for justice. These birds were driven to extremes to save their children. They did not deserve to be hanged "in terrorem."
Indeed, close observation seemed to support the assertion that rooks were, on the whole, beneficial. In 1833, The [London] Magazine of Natural History, for example, ran an article titled, "Utility of preserving birds on farms and orchards," that pointed to "an extensive experiment" in "agricultural districts on the Continent" that demonstrated that it was wrong to destroy rooks, jays, sparrows, and other birds, "particularly where there are orchards." [I've been unable to find more details about this "experiment"]. As anecdotal support, the article referenced the experience of farmers in Devonshire who had exterminated all the rooks in the area and had such poor crops subsequently that they ended up reimporting rooks. The author concluded that "Ornithologists have of late determined these facts to be true; and parish officers would do well to consider them, before they waste the public money in paying rewards to idle boys and girls for the heads of dead birds…"
When amateur ornithologist James Stuart Menteath, Esq. (not the famous clergyman and friend of Adam Smith--but his son) discovered that farmers in the Scottish county of Ayrshire had successfully lobbied to have a bounty put on the heads of rooks, he decided to protest in print. His self-published pamphlet, Farmers v. Rooks, was influential in furthering the pro-rook cause (Yarrell cited it in his popular British bird book) and it was a variation on a literary form previously mentioned--the "crow trial."
Menteath's trial was a dramatic fiction constructed from actual documents. After introducing the reader to the minutes of the General Agricultural Association for Ayrshire, where the arguments against the rook (as well as the crow and wood pigeon) had been made, the "trial" proper began.
The indictment being open and read, it charged the Rooks as being guilty of Theft, in various corn and potato fields, on various occasions, in Ayrshire, aggravated by the expense, which they obliged the farmer to incur in the employment of boys to frighten them away, &c.&c. (11)
Instead of dramatically recreating the prosecutor's case, Menteath simply referred the reader to the minutes printed in the introduction of the pamphlet. Then he had the defense counsel speak:
Gentlemen of the jury,--in rising to remove from your minds the groundless prejudices among the tenantry and county gentlemen of Ayrshire against the Rooks, I will detain you as short a time as possible, while detailing to you a few facts in favour of my clients. And you will easily perceive how false are the charges in the libel, which my honourable friend, the Counsel for the Prosecution, has endeavored to substantiate in his eloquent speech. After I have supported these statements, by calling different witnesses, the most eminent naturalists of the age, I shall most confidently look for a verdict of acquittal, that my clients be honourably discharged from the bar--and that in all times coming they shall enjoy the protection of this Court from the attacks of their enemies--and be suffered to inhabit, without farther molestation, the same Rookeries which they and their venerable forefathers have for ages inherited. (11)
The defense went on to speak of the fine character of the Rook, how the Rook "resorts to a grain diet with reluctance," and how it controlled a number of specific insect pests, including Turnip Fly, Cockchafer Beetles, Wireworm Beetle, Crane Fly grubs, and Slugs.
He then proceeded to call on twenty-nine "eminent naturalists" as witnesses for the defense, including Mr Benrick (sic--should be Bewick), Mr. Selby, Messrs. Kirby and Spense (sic--should be Spence), Mr. Jesse, and Mr. Knapp (see above), each of whom was a given a paragraph or two, constructed out of existing writings, sometimes paraphrased and sometimes written in the first person.
For example, when the Rev. W.T. Bree "took the stand," he "declared":
Though rooks pick up and devour some small portions of the newly sown corn, they ought, notwithstanding, to be regarded as useful and beneficial creatures to man, and by intelligent persons are generally allowed to be so. I am one of the rooks' firmest friends, being fully convinced (indeed it has been proved by actual experiment) that they are, on the whole, beneficial to the farmer. Unquestionably they commit some little injury, particularly when impelled by necessity, during the time of dry weather, when grubs penetrate much deeper into the earth than usual, and the common earthworm rarely makes its appearance. But then, by way of compensation, they do a vast deal of good. Only let the balance be fairly struck, and the good they do will be found greatly to preponderate. (16) [Bree was the apparent author of the The Magazine of Natural History article noted above]
There the trial ended, as "the Prosecutor's Counsel being impressed with the weight of the evidence adduced in favor of the [defense], without reply left the case in the hands of the Court and Jury." Then "obliged to leave the court," the reporter did not immediately hear the verdict, but confidently summarized the persuasive exculpatory evidence, including an additional positive witness not heard in the case:
Let us seriously petition every proprietor of a rookery to protect its sooty inhabitants; to keep always in mind the answer the late Peter Johnstone, of Carnsalloch…returned to tyro-sportsmen, asking permission to shoot the young crows, his uniform reply was--"No! The crows were tenants of the trees long before my day, and will be tenants of them long after I am gone!" (26)
Menteath ended the report of the "trial" with a sorrowful epilogue.
We are extremely sorry to learn, since we reported the proceedings at this trial, that notwithstanding the eloquent and convincing speech of the pannel's Counsel, and the mass of satisfactory exculpatory evidence, which he adduced in favour of his clients, the rooks; and contrary to our expectations, the Jury returned a "verdict of guilty;" and the Committee of Judges pronounced "sentence of death," and extermination against every rookery in Ayrshire. And, although the rooks had been strongly recommended to mercy, information, we regret to add, has not yet reached us of any reprieve having mercifully been granted to them. On the contrary, we regret to observe in the Dumfries Times newspaper of Wednesday the 18th of April 1838, that the sentence of the Court has been carried into severe and unsparing execution.... (27)
This was not simply a crow trial, this was the story of a miscarriage of justice.
Regardless of the situation in Ayrshire, opinion of rooks in some agricultural quarters did apparently improve, with at least one farmer, for example, asking the Gardener's Chronicle (March 1842) how he might reinstate rooks on his property and a story (unconfirmed) circulating that farmers in Virginia had even tried to introduce rooks into America as a way to control insects (see The Agricultural Magazine and Journal of Scientific Farming 1(1), 18. )
Finally it is worth noting the coincidence of the literary "crow trial" with the curious ornithological phenomenon (and elaborated folklore) of the "crow trial" or "crow court" or "parliament of crows." Crows, ravens, and rooks have been observed engaging in behavior that resembles human trials, with large flocks of birds "deliberating" and then singling out individual birds for apparent judgment. Is this a possible unstated influence on the crow trial form of bird protection rhetoric?