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Corncrake





A shy summer visitor, the corncrake now only nests in the more peaceful meadowlands of the rural north and west – driven from its former range by increasingly mechanized farming.

On warm summer evenings at the turn of the century, the monotonous, rasping crek crek of the elusive country folk, so numerous were these birds. Large numbers of shy visitor from Africa would arrive to make their summer home among thick stands of grass and rough vegetation throughout Britain. But during the last 70 years or so the corncrake has slowly and dramatically disappeared from most of its breeding haunts and is now only regularly heard in the west of Scotland, the Scottish Isles, north-west Wales and, above all, in rural Ireland, where about 1500 pairs still nest each year.

Despite its name, the corncrake prefers damp meadows with plenty of nettles and other tall weeds, to fields of ripe corn. Here it spends most of the day skulking among the vegetation, perfectly camouflaged by its brown, black-streaked plumage. About the size of a moorhen and resembling a slim, short-necked gamebird, it is, like other members of the rail family, more commonly heard than seen. Shy and secretive by nature, the corncrake cranes its neck above the grass stems to reconnoiter the scene before emerging from cover. Of approached, it quickly vanishes, creeping stealthily from one patch of cover to another. Only as a last resort will it take to the air to escape danger, as its bright chestnut wing patches, and dangling legs trailing behind its short tail, clearly identify the bird. Under cover of failing light, though, at dusk it becomes bolder and more active, searching among the grass for beetles, grasshoppers, slugs, snails, earthworms, leaves and seeds.

Night Cryer – It is the male corncrake which is responsible for the far-carrying, rasping call. He uses it to advertise his claim to territory – all night, for weeks on end, from the same field. The sound has a peculiarly ventriloqual quality, which makes this elusive bird even more difficult to locate.

However, one way of luring it into view is to mimic its call by rubbing a wooden ruler across the teeth of a comb, for a calling male often finds it hard to resist investigating what it takes to be a rival.

If two rival males do meet, they puff out their body feathers, open their wings wide to show off their chestnut patches, and stretch their heads and necks out at each other. If particularly incensed, they may stab out with their short, sharp, pinkish bills.

The corncrake’s nest is a shallow scrape, on which the female fashions a sparse pad of dry grass. It is usually well hidden deep in lush meadow vegetation or among hay crops. The female lays between 6-14 eggs and incubates them for about a fortnight. Three or four days after hatching the fluffy black chicks are able to leave the nest and find food for themselves. After 4 or 5 weeks, they can fly, and in September set off with the adults on their south-ward migration across the Meditterranean and Sahara to the grasslands of East Africa. Though apparently weak in flight, they are able to make a 4000 mile journey to their winter quarters.
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