ALFIE the raven is in mischievous mood during our visit to Corvid Dawn in Berkshire.
This is not at all unusual, it transpires – and to be fair we were given plenty of warning to watch out for one of the more colourful characters looked after by Aimee Wallis at her wild bird rescue sanctuary.
The captive-bred raven flies free around their rural retreat and takes a very close interest in our movements. But then this is a bird who flies and trots along when the ‘family’ goes for a walk and enjoys playing games like ‘fetch’ and hide and seek (as long as he gets to make up the rules).
Alfie’s clearly in his element amid the motley assortment of other animals to be found in Aimee’s sanctuary, and as we embark on a guided tour there are soon plenty of curious onlookers in tow – a trio of dogs, a couple of rescue lambs from Wales and the neighbours’ children, for a start.
Cutest of the new arrivals is Missy the baby duckling, a tiny white mallard found by a couple on a canal, either abandoned by her mother or dropped by a predator.
The RSPB warns people only to interfere with fledglings as a last resort, and says: “Seeing ducklings and other young birds on their own is perfectly normal, so there’s no need to be worried. Just because you cannot see the adult doesn’t mean they are not there.”
But the couple who found Missy could find no trace of mum and looked after her for a couple of days before bringing her to Aimee.
“They did so well, did all the right things, she’s a lucky girl. They’re off back to Australia at some point so couldn’t really take her on,” Aimee explains.
Missy will be in good company here. The rescue lambs are taking a close interest in her welfare as she settles into her paddling pool and there’s a lot of curiosity among the corvids too – the crows, rooks, jackdaws and ravens who are the main focus of attention at the centre.
Yes, there are hens and turkeys here too, but it’s the corvids that are Aimee’s first love and which prompted her to create the sanctuary in the first place. Before all this she had a career in the beauty industry, though that life seems very distant to her now.
It’s a few years since Aimee’s first encounter with corvids, after she and her mother took an injured blackbird to a bird sanctuary and she became intrigued by the intelligence of the crows and ravens who were kept there.
In fact she ended up working at the centre as a volunteer and the love affair was cemented when she first encountered a blind five-week-old crow called Wonder. But as she began to learn more about the birds she also began to realise that she and the owner had very different ideas about how the rescue centre should be run.
She says: “My first question was when will the birds be released, but it was clear they weren’t going to be. He didn’t agree with nature, he thought the birds were better off with him than they would be in the wild.”
It’s clear that there are plenty of unhappy memories associated with that period of her life, but Aimee doesn’t shirk from difficult questions and has publicly spoken out in the press about her experiences at the sanctuary, which was raided by police in 2015, after she had left.
“The former volunteers were all devastated by the outcome,” she says. “When I first went there I noticed that the cages were not in a great state and there wasn’t a lot of water. I just thought they needed some help so I started volunteering.”
Aimee started releasing healthy birds from the aviaries herself and taking ill birds to a local vet, learning a lot about the birds’ welfare in the process. She was allowed to take two birds with her when she left, but dozens of birds were seized in the police raid and a number had to be put down.
The corvid family includes crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaw, jays and magpies – all known for their intelligence – and it was clear to her that she wanted to set up her own rescue centre if at all possible.
After moving back home with her mum for a while she worked in a local pub and was able to keep her birds on land there for a year until the pub got planning permission to expand. By then, word had got around about her rescue work, prompting one farmer she also worked for to offer her the chance of establishing a proper base in the country.
That move in November 2017 provided the perfect opportunity to set up Corvid Dawn as a more spacious sanctuary able to offer a proper rescue and release service.
“We were in desperate need of a new base and the farm is run by a lovely older couple,” says 36-year-old Aimee.
It’s a perfect location for her centre and it’s been a busy few months working on new accommodation for the growing family. It’s hard to keep track of exact numbers, though, with new arrivals most weekends. That all adds to a pretty demanding work schedule – not to mention proving a costly exercise, with so many mouths to feed.
The aim, wherever possible, is to rescue and release birds back into the wild, although some of the more badly injured will be longer-term residents, along with cruelty cases who may have been mistreated or neglected.
Eventually, Aimee hopes the centre will also be able to perform an important educational role, introducing school children to the birds through talks and displays at locations like the Nature Discovery Centre in Thatcham, Berkshire.
Her mission is to demonstrate just how intelligent and perceptive birds can be and, by sharing her experiences of rescuing and rearing corvids, promote a better understanding of British wild birds among pupils.
“They are fantastic judges of character. It’s bizarre – they show jealousy and they have favourite objects,” she chuckles.
Providing sanctuary to her family of animals and birds has involved some rapid cage-building, although one day she would love to have a free-flying flock of rooks.
For now, large cages will have to suffice. But partner Dario, 33, has been a willing worker, even embarking on a carpentry course to hone his woodworking skills.
An Italian with former experience in the military, he came to the UK to improve his English and had a job locally working with horses when they first met.
There are signs of his hard labour everywhere, from the fencing and cage construction to the newly turned over patch which will soon become a vegetable garden.
It’s clear that he loves animals too, despite the hard work involved in almost every aspect of their care.
Alfie is looking down from a lofty perch inspecting us as we wander around his territory, a reminder that establishing such a close relationship with him has been no easy task.
Bred in captivity for the pet trade, he was angry and suspicious and it has taken many, many hours of cajoling – and plenty of slashes from his razor-sharp beak – to win his trust and establish the sort of easy rapport that we are able to witness.
But despite the tough times – the tales of animal cruelty and the trauma of dealing with ill and injured animals – Aimee finds people’s compassion and kindess a huge compensation.
The weekend after our visit sees an influx of new arrivals: badly injured baby blackbirds mauled by a cat, a jackdaw with an eye infection, an almost paralysed crow hit by a car.
“The saddest was three newborn baby blackbirds that came in,” she posted on the centre’s Facebook page, where some of her 1400 followers are quick to offer their support. “They all died one by one, despite antibiotics and heat.”
Yet almost in the same breath she is posting: “Can I just say what wonderful people I’ve met through these birds this weekend, really kind driving them to meet me or even bringing them here, really touching to see people show such compassion, thank you so much xx”
Alfie is far from being the only star of the show, of course – there’s Ratchet the rook grabbing an impossibly large twig for nest building, Dara the one-legged crow recovering from an operation at the vet’s, and a dozen other assorted corvids clamouring for love and attention.
Not to mention the animals too, of course. “We are busy with farm animals – we are suckers for it, to be honest,” Aimee admits. “We have two little pigs – that was an emergency thing – and two lambs, and some rescue turkeys. And about 23 birds, mainly corvids.”
Out here in rural Berkshire, there’s quite a substantial population of wild animals too, including hundreds of rooks, jackdaws and starlings in nearby fields and woods, along with foxes and badgers.
The wild rooks may be a little perplexed by Alfie’s decision not to stray too far from home – but so far the fencing has proved a sufficient deterrent to keep the hens in and the foxes out.
Not that the education process is restricted to children. Many farmers regard crows and pigeons as pests, and dozens of fieldsports videos are dedicated to the merits of different guns and cartridges for disposing of the birds, citing their damage to crops and potential spread of disease as key arguments for pest control.
Aimee doesn’t mind discussing such matters with anyone, as long as they can keep the debate civilised.
“I’m just a normal girl who loves animals,” Aimee insists. Maybe so, but it takes a pretty dedicated individual to lavish this kind of time and attention on such a large and demanding family just for the fun of it.
All the hard work doesn’t go unappreciated, though, judging by the reactions of her feathered friends. And it’s Alfie who has the last word, of course, cackling loudly as we start making moves to leave, and even standing out there on the road to see us off…
For more information about Corvid Dawn, see the centre’s Facebook page.