Red List Fourteen – Corn Crake

Corn Crake (Crex crex) Photo by Ron Knight at

Dear Readers, I have never seen a corn crake, but honestly, who could resist after the description of the birds in the Outer Hebrides by Will Smith that I included on my rock doves post last week:

Fieldwork was often challenging and involved long nights in Outer Hebridean meadows, climbing through ruined buildings to study the doves as they roost. One of the privileges of this is getting familiar with all the other animals and plants that make their home there, including the Corncrake. These fascinating birds seem to purposefully move gradually closer and closer to the tent each day until they are shouting ‘crex-crex’, at maximum volume, all night, a metre from my head. At least Rock Doves don’t test an ornithologist’s patience quite that much!’

And why, I wondered, was the Latin name of the corncrake ‘Crex crex‘? Have a listen to this, recorded in Ireland by Oscar Campbell.

There’s something about the corncrake that seems essentially adorable to me. Maybe it’s the way that it skulks about like all rails do, but then issues forth a call that can be heard from nearly a mile away. Maybe it’s the fact that you can persuade a male corncrake to answer you by flicking a credit card against a zip fastener or comb. Calling is apparently so exhausting that if you only count the males who call, you will underestimate the population by about 30%, as males often have a night off. And then, the Wikipedia has the fascinating entry ‘ Corn crakes are silent in Africa’. Tell us more, for goodness sake!

Although maybe they’re exhausted when they get to Africa. There are still some corn crakes left in Scotland and Ireland, though they seem to be pushed to the northern and western extremes of the countries. Although these birds appear to be weak flyers, they spend the winter in south-eastern Africa, before returning north to breed. In the UK they’re Red-listed by the IUCN, but fortunately there are still large numbers across the steppes of Russia and Central Asia. However, in the UK they are victims of early haymaking, when chicks, eggs and sometimes even the incubating females can be destroyed by mechanical harvesters, in particular their habit of working from the outside of a field in, giving the birds no chance to escape. A simple measure like harvesting from the inside of a field to the outside gives animals more ways to avoid the blades, especially if there are uncut areas at the edge of fields, not to mention hedgerows. It would need relatively minor tweaks for us to start encouraging the corncrake again.

The corncrake, mentioned by John Clare as a bird that was often heard but seldom seen, was once the very sound of summer across great swathes of the UK. The folk singer Karine Polwart recorded the song ‘Echo Mocks the Corncrake’, a 19th century Scottish love song, as part of the  ‘Songs of Separation‘, a festival that brought together ten female folk musicians from England and Scotland to create music about separation in all its many aspects. For me, this song captures the rage and sadness of our isolation from the natural world, and a kind of wildness. See what you think. And in the meantime, if you’ve ever seen or heard a corncrake, do let me know what it was like! It makes me want to rush off to the Outer Hebrides.

And here is the song.


6 thoughts on “Red List Fourteen – Corn Crake

  1. Anne

    Another interesting read. The same corn crake appears in the north-eastern parts of South Africa. It is listed in my bird guide as a near-threatened and uncommon Palearctic migrant along with the confirmation that these birds are seldom heard calling in Africa (no explanation). They are known to eat insects, grass seeds and leaves.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I can’t imagine how it travels all those miles on its little wings! And of course, thinking about it, it’s silent in Africa because it isn’t breeding. It seems a mighty long way to go for a rest, though!

  2. Pen Thompson CBE

    Fascinating and what a treat to get the link to Karine Polwarts song – she’s one of my favourites but I haven’t heard Songs of Separation . Thank you . Happy blogging anniversary !

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hey Pen, can it really be nine years since we sat in that room in Spitalfields? Glad you enjoyed the Karine Polwarts song, she’s new to me but I loved this.


Leave a Reply