The Corncrake: the sound of Victorian England

Nowadays the Corncrake is limited to the Outer Hebrides in Scotland although there is also what seems to be a highly successful  reintroduction scheme being carried out in the RSPB Nene Washes Reserve in Cambridgeshire, England:

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In the first half of the nineteenth century, Corncrakes were present throughout the length and breadth of England and their distinctive call was heard in every sunlit field. Even their Latin name, crex crex, is onomatopoeic. The birds were described as producing the most distinctive summer sound to be heard on a country walk anywhere in England. This is the song of the corncrake, beautifully recorded by “therhys927”

Corncrakes will often sing all through the night, and they can in fact be pretty aggravating little so-and-so’s once the initial novelty has worn off:

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John Clare, England’s greatest poet, wrote a poem about the bird which he knew as the “Landrail”:

“How sweet and pleasant grows the way
Through summer time again
While Landrails call from day to day
Amid the grass and grain

We hear it in the weeding time
When knee deep waves the corn
We hear it in the summers prime
Through meadows night and morn

And now I hear it in the grass
That grows as sweet again
And let a minutes notice pass
And now tis in the grain”

Nowadays, the Corncrakes are all gone, gradually killed off by decade after decade of desire for profit, intensive farming practices and in particular the mechanised mowing techniques used by the nation’s farmers in place of the trusty scythe.  This sad decline is chronicled in Nottinghamshire by the county’s Victorian birdwatchers:

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In 1866, in his “Ornithology of Nottinghamshire”,  William Felkin wrote that “the corncrake is very common”. Three years later, in 1869, William Sterland provided a charming account of this delightful bird in “The Birds of Sherwood Forest”:

“That bird of singular habits and note, the corncrake, visits us in abundance every year, sometimes arriving as early as the first of May, while in 1853 I did not hear its note until the 18th. This was unusually late; the season being a remarkably cold and backward one, a fact of which our other migratory birds also seemed, in some mysterious way, to be fully cognisant. Nothing, indeed, relating to the feathered tribes is more wonderful or more deserving of our admiration than that knowledge, call it instinct or what you will, which, implanted in them by their Creator, enables them to hasten or delay their departure for their distant but temporary places of abode, according as the seasons there are suitable to their necessities or otherwise. How strikingly is this wisdom brought forward in Holy Scripture: “Yes, the Stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed time and the turtle, and the crane, and the swallow observe the time of their coming.”

William Sterland seems well aware of the piece of Corncrake behaviour which was to prove its downfall, as the mechanized mower made its inexorable way forward:

“I have never succeeded in causing the Corncrake to take wing except with a dog, and even then its flight is always brief, as it takes an early opportunity of dropping to the ground and regaining its cover. It flies rather slowly with its legs hanging down, and there is such an air of effort about his movements on the wing, that I have often wondered how its migrations are performed.
Its ventriloquial powers are well known to every observer. Now it’s harsh “Crake, crake” seems within a few yards, and the next moment it sounds as if it were halfway across the field, and this apparent variation in distance is so well simulated that in a consecutive repetition of its call for ten or twelve times, a few notes will sound as if uttered almost at your feet, and the next two or three from afar, and yet the bird is standing motionless all the time, as I have several times tested. Its singular call I have often imitated by drawing my nail across the teeth of a pocket comb, and thus inducing its near approach.”

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Again Sterland reveals how fully conscious he is of the problems the Corncrake will face throughout the rest of the nineteenth century:

“The female sits very closely on eggs, so closely indeed, as not infrequently to lose her life by the mower’s scythe. I have known two instances of this, in one of which the poor bird was almost cut in two.”

Ten years later, in 1879, William Sterland provided additional details about the Corncrake:

“An abundant summer visitor. It is also been found in winter, and on this account has been thought by some to hibernate; but apart from the fact that no bird is known to hibernate, why should a corncrake which remains during the winter not be able to fare as well as a water rail or a common snipe. Cold does not affect them.”

In his “Scribblings of a Hedgerow Naturalist”(1904), Joseph Whitaker wrote:

“The other evening when talking to Rose the Nottingham taxidermist (who has set up a great many specimens in this collection) I remarked how very few Corncrake there were about, he said he well remembered about 35 years ago, a man bringing a large basket to his father, of these birds, which he had shot in two days, and they numbered over fifty; at that time he said the meadows round Nottingham were full of them, and their call could be heard on all sides. This year I have heard one, although I have been about a great deal.”

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No Corncrakes in 1904, no meadows in 2014! Elsewhere Joseph Whitaker wrote about his country house at Rainworth, between Nottingham, and Mansfield:

“I am sorry to say the Corn Crake is getting scarcer. I have not heard one near the house was several years, although twenty years ago they were in every mowing field. No doubt the result of mowing machines which cuts the young up often I fear.”

Three years later in 1907, Joseph Whitaker provided in “The Birds of Nottinghamshire”  the following information :

“I sorrow to say that this interesting bird is a rapidly vanishing species, not only as far as Notts is concerned, but in many other counties. Twenty years back it was the exception in the spring not to hear a corncrake in nearly every mowing field in the Trent Valley, and almost every seed and grass field left for hay in other parts. In this very high and dry parish of Blidworth, we had between ten and fifteen pairs, now for the last three years not a bird has been heard.”

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Like his fellow nature writers, Joseph Whitaker chronicles the decline:

“At Southwell, on a June night, their curious call resounded on all sides; now this year there may be two pairs. Mr Henry Smith Junior of Cropwell Butler informs me that this scarcity is very noticeable in that part, and in fact all over the south of the county.”

Alas, Whitaker was to be proved wrong when he wrote:

“Let us hope that it will be many years before they are quite a bird of the past, but if they decrease during the next twenty years as fast as their decrease during the last two decades, it pains me to think that it may be so.
I once heard a corncrake calling inside the kitchen garden at Welbeck Abbey.”

And finally, in “Jottings of a Naturalist” in 1912, Whitaker wrote:

“Twenty years ago there were Corncrakes all over the parish, in fact it was the exception not to hear them in every mowing field, but I know that there is been none for the last ten years, not a single bird heard, and the parish is six thousand acres; and it is not only so in these parts, it is the same everywhere.”

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And really, that was that. The end of the Corncrake.

As the Great War loomed, the Victorian age drew to a close. No more mowing fields, no more meadows full of flowers, no more clouds of brightly coloured butterflies. And no more Corncrakes. Just mud, blood, war and death.

To film a Corncrake nowadays, you are more or less wasting your time in England. This beautiful, atmospheric video comes from “mikhailrodionov” in faraway Russia:

 

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10 Comments

Filed under History, Nottingham, Science, Twitching, Wildlife and Nature

10 responses to “The Corncrake: the sound of Victorian England

  1. John, what a nice post. I learned about a new bird today, thanks! It does sound like a very large cricket or hopper. Yes, I would be cringing if he sat under my open window at night and sang to me. He’s cute.

  2. I’m relatively close to the Nene washes and wasn’t aware of this reintroduction. Maybe they are keeping it quiet or maybe I just didn’t catch that part in the news. A lovely little fellow.

  3. In my readings over the last 60 odd years I have read of the corncrake. It is so good to hear it. In return we have a bird that scared the living daylights out ofme when I was young and first heard it late on a dark night. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6V0Q4XYfsc The mopoke before you play the tape say the word mopoke out loud a couple of times.

  4. Hannah Prescott

    Hi John, I was interested to read this because I’m currently living in Nottinghamshire and I’m convinced that there are corncrakes close to my house. This summer I have regularly been woken up at night by a strange bird call and eventually looked up British night birds and came across the corncrake. The corncrake’s call, as far as I can tell, is identical to what I hear at night! I was quite surprised when my mother then told me that we supposedly don’t get corncrakes in England anymore. I am living on a farm which has significant areas of untouched woodland, undergrowth and marshy areas, which has been purposely left to encourage wildlife. Perhaps this is what has attracted them?

    • Thanks very much for your interesting story. I’m glad that my scribblings were of use to you! There is no reason that a corncrake shouldn’t be present in suitable habitat in Nottinghamshire in the summer. The RSPB has recently reintroduced them in Cambridgeshire and your birds may be connected with this.

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