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What is a Rookery?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A rookery is a colony of breeding animals; specifically crows, although the term is used more generally to refer to birds and sometimes to marine mammals as well. The term is used both to refer to the site of the colony, and to the collective group of animals which inhabits it. Rookeries can be both artificial and natural; archaeological evidence suggests that humans have been breeding animals in facilities that they have built specifically for this purpose for thousands of years.

One of the common names for the European crow is “rook,” a word which is probably onomatopoeic in origin, since rooks make a croaking, raucous sound. By 1725, people were referring to groups of breeding crows as rookeries, and the extension of the term to other species soon followed. Classically, people think of a rookery as a very noisy, chaotic place since a lot of animals are present and each creature is following its own agenda. Rookeries also tend to be very messy, due to excrement from animals and their young.

Most animals do not inhabit their rookeries year round. Rather, they travel to the rookery to meet up with other individuals, breed, and raise their young until the young are mature enough to manage on their own. In some cases, a rookery is removed from the animal's normal habitat and hunting grounds. While this might seem odd to nest far from home, this means that predators are less likely to attack the young animals, since a rookery is usually established in a remote, sheltered area.

Animals which breed in rookeries have adapted certain traits to help them deal with the intense environment. They are able to recognize the distinct cries of their young over the din of thousands of other individuals, for example. Some creatures even establish social routines, such as allowing other members of a rookery to care for their young. In a remote rookery, parents typically take shifts, where one parent looks after the young while the other seeks out food.

In the sense of an artificially established environment, a rookery is usually a structure which is designed to facilitate breeding of birds, like a dovecote. For humans, the difficulty in cleaning up and maintaining the rookery is outweighed by the convenience of having ready access to the creatures inside. A rookery which is established is typically smaller than a rookery in nature, with tens of individuals as opposed to hundreds or thousands.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Emilski — On Sep 19, 2011

Would a chicken pen be considered a rookery? At this point everything is very automated and commercialized, but all of the basic steps are still in use. I'm not sure if being able to leave the rookery is part of the requirements.

Is it possible to build a rookery for migratory birds that pass by your home in the spring? There are a few species that I would love to have stop by, but I've never had any luck. I live in the country, so it's not like having a rookery would disturb any of my neighbors.

On an unrelated note, does this concept of rookeries have any meaning in reference to the chess piece called a rook?

By matthewc23 — On Sep 19, 2011

@jcraig - Remember a rookery doesn't necessarily have to refer to crows. That is just where the term originated to describe their nesting grounds.

Before post offices, every major city had a carrier pigeon rookery that they could use to transport messages. I have also read about rookeries being used to reintroduce various bird species into areas where there habitat was destroyed. Blue herons seem to be a common bird for this. I'm sure there are plenty of other examples.

By jcraig — On Sep 18, 2011

@jmc88 - Those are interesting questions. I was wondering a lot of the same things. I think maybe rookeries, at least the artificial kind, are more of a European thing. At least in America, crows are seen as a pest in most of the country.

Whenever I see crows flying, they are always in huge groups, so I assume that they form rookeries in forests. I can't say that I've ever noticed in person anything that I would consider a rookery.

When people do make artificial rookeries, what is the purpose? Like I mentioned before, as far as I know crows are useful for anything. Why would you want to keep them?

By jmc88 — On Sep 17, 2011

I have always heard a rookery referred to as a breeding place for seals. I didn't know it was more common for a rookery to be talking about crows or birds.

I don't know that there are a lot of crows where I live. Where are natural rookeries usually created? Do the birds live in trees, or do they usually invade houses or human structures to make their nests?

Also, does anyone know how the birds decide on a location for the rookery? Are crows social birds that form flocks and follow one another around to different places all year?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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