This week I was reading a news story about one of the UK’s rarest birds, the corncrake. Corncrakes are a farmland bird species, and a member of the rail family. They are small and perfectly camouflaged, making them notoriously difficult to spot.
I remember becoming fascinated by this bird after reading about them in an old RSPB magazine when I was probably around 11 or 12. The article highlighted the work being done in the Hebrides to establish and grow the population. After reading this they were cemented as one of my favourite species.
However because they are so secretive, they are often overlooked and forgotten about, I have decided to change the tide a little and shed some light on this little species. To start with, they are pretty unique, there are very few species like corncrakes in the UK. Shaped like a stretched out quail, corncrakes are only found in grasslands and meadows. Changes in agriculture such as intensive motorised cutting and a loss of grasslands caused corncrake numbers to dramatically decline, and despite a slight upturn in their population, they are still only found in very specific areas and remain red listed (species of highest conservation priority).
As mentioned they are notoriously difficult to spot, they are the masters of blending in to their surroundings. However despite being difficult to see, they are actually relatively easy (if you go to the right places at the right times) to hear. They make one of the strangest noises of any British bird. It sounds similar to rubbing a pen against a plastic brush. I first heard a corncrake whilst on holiday on the Isle of Colonsay in Scotland, it is a truly weird sound, and as they seem to pride themselves on not being seen, it is a sound that is very difficult to locate.
I think the most fascinating thing about the corncrake is that they migrate. This slightly awkward looking, small farmland bird flies thousands of miles from the UK to Africa every year. It is a remarkable thing, the BTO recently tracked a bird that traveled this year from Scotland to the Congo, totaling a distance of 4000 miles.
With the continued conservation effort from the RSPB and the BTO as well as many other groups, corncrake numbers are increasing. I hope with more coverage and education we can start to implement some changes in farming which can benefit this bird. As we start to look towards more sustainable and wildlife friendly agriculture, there may be a chance that sometime in the future we will hear the ‘crex crex’ call of corncrakes again throughout the UK.