Roost shooting can be a very effective way to cull crafty corvids – Kev Hawker puts in a late shift in an effort to reduce the numbers of these nest-robbing birds.
Roost shooting is a great way to bring crows to book, as these famously cautious birds tend to be a little less wary around their roosting sites than they are over open ground. The clock is ticking, though, as the prime season for this approach runs from late winter to early spring, so now is the time to get out and make the most of it.
Large gatherings of crows, often joined by jackdaws, can be encountered at their favourite roosting sites at this time of year, but they will gradually disperse as the weather warms up. Another reason for cramming in a few extra roost-shooting sessions over the coming weeks is the fact that emerging foliage will soon make it difficult to spot and shoot corvids up in the treetops.
One of my favourite permissions suffers a lot of crow damage. In the woods, these birds have a significant impact on songbirds and gamebirds by predating on their eggs and chicks during the nesting season. Out on the open field, they cause more problems when flocks descend on freshly drilled arable crops to dine on seeds and emerging shoots.
Because of the harm crows cause, the landowner likes their numbers to be kept in check, and shooting them at the roost is one way of doing that. Crows don’t roost just anywhere in the woods; they have favourite places where they will often gather in surprisingly high numbers. They usually favour the tallest trees, as they like a high vantage point from which to scan for danger when they first drop in.
It’s as important to look down as to look up when trying to identify a roosting site, as the ground beneath the crows’ favourite night-time perches will usually be splattered with a covering of white droppings. I’m pretty sure the main reason that people fail to realise they have active crow roosts on their shoots is because they don’t stay around late enough.
Crows flight in to roost very late, much later than woodies, so if you head for home as soon as the pigeons stop flighting you’ll probably be long gone by the time they arrive. My last hit on the crows actually followed a couple of hours spent trying to shoot woodies. The pigeons stopped coming in just as the light choice is to stand against a tree trunk which, apart from giving my camo clothing something to work against, usually serves as a rest for taking supported shots, too.
The importance of wearing a camouflage headnet and gloves cannot be over-emphasised: crows will soon spook if they glimpse flashes of pale skin in the gloom of the understorey. I had chosen a very still evening and, without a breeze creating a bit of background noise by rustling through the treetops, I was just as concerned about being heard as being spotted.
The biggest noise risk in this shooting scenario is that of a misplaced footfall crunching down and cracking twigs, or rustling through a pile of dry leaves. The easiest way to eliminate this problem is by using your boot to shunt any leaves and twigs away from where you’re standing. This creates a clear area of soft leaf mould that is extremely quiet to stand on.
The still peace of the evening was shattered by the distant croaking of crows before I’d finished settling in. I was in no hurry, though, as these cautious corvids tend to keep back from the roost and then make a few high passes to scan for danger before swooping into the treetops.
Sure enough, several minutes passed before I spotted the first crow of the evening, which was taking a straight and very high line over the top of the wood. More birds slowly began to congregate in the skies above my hiding place, and their croaking and chattering calls gradually became more frequent as they went through their usual pre-roost ritual of circling and swooping way above the treetops in an ever-increasing flock.
I could literally see and hear the birds growing in confidence as the light seeped from the dusky sky. Finally, a group of four birds peeled off from the main flock and swooped into the uppermost branches of an ash tree about 30 metres from my hiding place.
Leaning my Air Arms Ultimate Sporter into the tree trunk I’d been using as a backdrop, I brought the crosshairs to bear on the nearest bird’s head and touched off the trigger. The pellet hit home with a whack and the crow tumbled down through the branches before crashing into the carpet of leaves.
Crows tend to react in one of two ways after losing one from their ranks: they either back away or they go berserk. On this occasion they chose the latter course of action, and the sky was filled with the black silhouettes of swooping crows and their harsh rasping screams.
The commotion can be overwhelming, but I managed to keep my cool and added another crow to the tally before the remaining flock wised up to the threat and drifted away. Silence returned to the woods, and over the following minutes the stillness was broken only by the occasional ghostly shriek from a hunting tawny owl.
Just as I thought I might have had my fill for the evening, a squirrel rustled through the treetops, no doubt making its way back to its drey after visiting one of the pheasant feeders for a late nibble. I lost sight of it a couple of times as it slipped in and out of patches of ivy, but it eventually made the mistake of venturing onto an open branch comfortably within range.
I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth and the startled rodent froze as it tried to locate the source of the sound. Its hesitation proved to be a fatal mistake as it gave me time to take aim and add the grain-gobbling critter to the bag. Ten minutes later, a mob of chattering jackdaws came tumbling along through the boughs.
I missed a hurried shot at the leading bird, but a quick throw of the Ultimate Sporter’s sidelever had me reloaded in time to nail one of the stragglers. That jackdaw proved to be the last chance of the evening, however. Soon after, the light dropped significantly and the silence suggested that the crows had finished flighting.
All that was left for me to do, therefore, was to pick up by torchlight before heading for home with my various spoils. Admittedly, spending time in gloomy woodland may not be to everyone’s liking, but I felt thoroughly satisfied as I trekked through the darkness knowing that my efforts would help to boost this spring’s nestlings’ chances of survival.