Listening out for secretive Corncrakes

Corncrake, Crex crex, captive breeding. Moritz, Germany (Dieter Wendt) May 2001 RSPB
Corncrake, Crex crex, captive breeding. Moritz, Germany (Dieter Wendt) May 2001 RSPB

RSPB Scotland is asking local people to report hearing the distinctive call of one of our rarest birds, which is easy to hear but hard to see.

The corncrake, a brown farmland bird about the size of a small chicken, is incredibly secretive, spending much of its life skulking in patches of tall vegetation. From here it gives its repeated rasping ‘crex crex’ call, which has been likened to the noise a credit card makes when pulled across a plastic comb.

Once common across much of the UK, changes in farming practices saw the population plummet, and by the early 90s, it had earned the status of a globally-threatened species. 

The efforts of crofters and farmers across the Hebrides, with support from agricultural schemes, has produced an increase in corncrake numbers in recent years.

Dr Alison MacLennan, RSPB Scotland’s Skye, Wester Ross and Lochalsh conservation officer, said: “Because they’re secretive, corncrakes are hard birds to survey. The population figures reflect the number of calling males which surveyors count between midnight and 3am, when most birds are calling. Help from the public can be vital in letting us know where and when birds turn up in an area. Each year about a third of the birds on Skye occur outside their core area. People can help by letting us know if they believe they have heard, or even seen, a corncrake as this will inform our records, and allow us to focus resources on areas where management for the species may help it to expand.”

“Counts so far this spring suggest that good numbers of calling males are back in their traditional areas, so we’re hopeful that things are looking positive for the future. This is a welcome relief, particularly for small populations, such as that on Skye, where their rarity makes them more vulnerable.”

If you’ve heard or seen a corncrake in Skye or Wester Ross please contact Shelagh Parlane on 01470 582498 or if the record is from the Western Isles please contact Brian Lowe on 01876 510725. Alternatively records can be emailed to nsro@rspb.org.uk