Heavily associated with the territories of the halflings, and particularly Helmondshire, Scoffle, or Petticrows, to give them their old human name, are a common sight in rural Sarvonia. Often dubbed “the farmer’s foe”, their voracious appetite and knack for discovering a way past the most ingenious trap or barrier make them an unwelcome, but nonetheless characteristic, aspect of agricultural life in Sarvonia.
Appearance. Strange, slightly malformed-looking birds, Scoffle are unusually variable in their entire body shape. Except for a few common features, they can be very gracile and angular, or so squat and solidly built that they barely look capable of flight – though they almost always are, and the few flightless Scoffle recorded have not survived long in the wild. A full grown Scoffle might be anything between one and three palmspans tall, though of course it can be hard to accurately gauge this, as depending on their build they might stand erect or hunch down defensively. There has been much speculation as to why they vary so much, and some researchers have even argued that Scoffle are in fact not one breed but many closely related races, and tried to classify them accordingly. For practical purposes, though, it is far simpler to group them all together, as each individual bird seems as different as any of its kind.
The common features, however, make it easy to tell Scoffle from other birds – they are always coloured a drab, mousy brown-grey, except for their beaks, legs, and a circle of skin around the eyes, which are a vivid styruine green. The beak is variable in shape, but always slightly serrated, as if lined with tiny teeth, which help in shredding shoots and leaves – aside from that it can be long or short, blunt or pointed, and often slightly down turned or “snub-nosed”, depending on individuals.
Scoffle are not ornate in their plumage, which often looks slightly moth-eaten and disarranged, especially round the legs and tail, the tail being generally short and ragged, as Scoffle have a habit of nipping each other’s tail feathers when they want to get another’s attention. The wings are functional-looking – fairly short and rounded in shape, though depending on the build of the individual bird they can look comically out of proportion. In flight, though, these unprepossessing limbs are used to great effect – Scoffle fly quickly and strongly, often gliding in tight, well synchronised flocks.
Perhaps the most diagnostic feature is the plumes an adult Scoffle bears on its head – two tufts of long, darker feathers over the eyes, usually arcing back into antler-like tufts of feathers, in some cases growing as long as the entire body length of the bird. These plumes can be raised or lowered independently, like eyebrows, and seem to fill a similar function in communication between individuals.
Special Abilities. Almost anyone in Sarvonia who has an interest in raising edible plants can tell you that Scoffle are almost unparalleled thieves. They seem to have considerable intelligence, particularly when it comes to learning quickly, and working as a group, something that makes it very hard to construct any kind of deterrent that will keep them off crops for any length of time. They clearly recognise humans, elves and halflings and know to avoid them, but also to watch them, as a source of easy food. Even the best laid netting and cages to protect fruit and vegetables are no match for their ability to find the weak part of a construction and pull at it until it breaks.
They seem to be aided in their thievery by an ability to communicate quite subtle and complex messages to each other. Their calls are often described as bell-like- short, metallic notes with great variety of inflection and tone, so that they are often thought to be singing merrily as they go about their vandalism of gardens and fields. In fact, Scoffle rarely sing in the more ornamental fashion of some birds, but these are in fact a constant stream of contact calls between a group, and research would indicate that they contain a great deal of information about things such as the location of the ripest fruits, presence of people and other potential threats, and means to get past obstacles in the way of food.
When Scoffle are in sight of each other, these calls are backed up with visual displays of “eyebrow-waggling” as the halflings dub it, where the Scoffle raise and lower their crest-plumes to indicate more subtle meanings, usually related to the birds themselves and their relations to each other. In fact, scholars such as Shabakuk Zeborius Anfang, who studied the calls of Scoffle in order to draw comparison with those of corbies, daggerbeaks, and other intelligent birds, have gone so far as to say that “the eyebrow-waggling is used to talk about feelings, whilst the bell-calls are for talking about facts.” Whether it can be put as anthropomorphically as that, the use of such variety of communication points to the Scoffle being very intelligent birds.
Territory. Scoffle are found throughout Sarvonia. They don’t like extremes of temperature but they seem able to make themselves at home in secluded niches of both hot and cold climes, such as valleys or oases, where the climate is mediated. They particularly settle where humans, halflings, elves and other farming peoples are, as they flourish best by feeding off crops and gardens. Their greatest stronghold, though, is inarguably the Helmondshire, where they have been a pest of halfling crops since time immemorial.
Habitat/Behaviour. Sociable but irritable, Scoffle form nomadic in flocks of around ten individuals, which wander round large territories following whatever food is in season. Flocks are close knit and highly territorial, often aggressive to other flocks, except in the breeding season. Noisy and inquisitive, they will explore anything new in their territory and “talk” to each other about it, often sending an individual to fetch any scattered members of the group if something particularly interesting has been found. Their interests are by no means limited to things that may yield food. They often find their way into houses through open windows or doors, and cause havoc investigating any box, drawer or cupboard – they seem to have an urge to open anything that might be openable. They also show a fascination with their own reflections, and will spend hours pecking at and “talking to” any piece of polished metal or a shard of mirror they might discover.
Groups almost always show great variety of shape, usually with at least one large, heavy individual and one much smaller than the other, and especially a mix of beak-shapes. In effect, this seems to give them a living “tool kit” to work with, allowing them to use their different respective attributes together to break into any garden, escape any trap, and generally do as they please.
Diet. Scoffle are herbivores, living largely off grain, fruits, seeds and fresh shoots and leaves, except when very young (chicks feed on insects for the first months). They have voracious appetites, and are especially drawn to the sweet scents of ripe fruits and vegetables, making them a scourge of kitchen gardens. This attraction to sweet scents does, however, mean they can be distracted from eating crops if something sweet, such as the bread-babies traditionally used by Helmondshire Halflings, which will keep a flock of Scoffle happily occupied, thus saving the hard-grown fruits and vegetables they would otherwise spoil.
Mating. Scoffle have a short winter breeding season, when solitary individuals travel away from their flocks to secluded copses and wooded areas where they will be less likely to be disturbed by people. Males seek out females and endeavour to impress them with displays of head bobbing, wing fanning, and loud calls. If the female he has chosen likes him, she’ll mate, and then go back to her flock. In early spring, breeding females within a flock choose a communal roost-tree and they all build nests, usually very close together, even overlapping, mainly constructed out of grass. They lay three or four eggs each, though one is usually addled, and raise the chicks on insects that the flock males catch, despite having no relation to the chicks. By mid-spring (the end of Changing Winds or the beginning of Singing Bird) all the chicks should have fledged, and the flock returns to a nomadic lifestyle.
Usages. Though shot and trapped throughout their territory as a pest, there isn’t much use in a Scoffle; the meat is alright, if stringy and sometimes sparse, though many farmers take a certain vengeful delight in eating Scoffle pie as often as possible, and there is a widespread, though not particularly substantiated belief that hanging a Scoffle carcass out in a field will deter others from feeding nearby.
They are sometimes kept in flocks as pets, as they train quite well to do things like open locks and fetch and carry small objects, making them a favourite of thieves, performers and people who have trouble with everyday tasks, such as the blind or crippled. As intelligent and sociable birds they can be very worthwhile companions, if raised from a young age, though they have a tendency to steal food that is very hard to train out of them, and a natural mischievousness and curiosity that can be frustrating. There are, nonetheless, rumours of expert thieves who use trained flocks of Scoffle to pick locks, open windows, and even fly down chimneys, locate items of interest and steal them back to their handler, and apparently these rumours carry enough weight to worry certain wealthy individuals, as many smithies now offer to make “Lescrowe-proof” chimney grates to block such attempts. Of course, it could also be that this is a rumour started to arouse needless paranoia in wealthy individuals, and thus have them draw attention to themselves by purchasing such preventatives, but that is impossible to say.
Myth/Lore. Scoffle have, whether they like it or not, a firm place in the culture of the Helmondshire Halflings. They’ve become well known to halflings throughout Sarvonia through the story explaining their origins – the tale of Sconder the bean thief seems to suggest that the first Scoffle was in fact a particularly greedy halfling, and indeed the name of Scoffle seems to be a derivation of Sconder-fowl. The tale also relates a traditional remedy to the problem of Scoffle stealing crops. Bread babies (figures made out of sweetened bread) are still left out in gardens to appease the voracious birds and keep them off important crops, and this is apparently one of the few methods that are consistently effective.
Understandably, Scoffle have a bad reputation among farming communities, and are often shot down as pests, and associated with thievery, delinquency and greed. After a series of hard winters when large flocks of Scoffle stripping fields of all produce, they are often referred to by the old and rather melodramatic name of “Famine’s bells”. Human folklore tends to see them as particularly malicious and malformed creatures, their name for them of “Petticrow” or “Lescrowe” reflecting the view that they are a kind of stunted, ill-natured corbie. This is probably at least partly true - though they don’t have much physical resemblance to corbies, their behaviour bears comparison. That said, their undoubted intelligence and ingenuity for getting at things they shouldn’t has made them a sort of patron bird to thieves, with Lescrowe and Petticrow common assumed names among those who make their livings on the underside of the law.
Researchers. The majority of what might be called research into Scoffles is concerned strictly with how to deter or dissuade them from ruining crops, as might be expected. That said, their sociable, highly vocal habits drew them to the attention of the compendiumist Shabakuk Zeborius Anfang, whose interest in animal communication drew him to study a flock of captive Scoffle belonging to an individual identified only as “Feathered Eddie” for some weeks, making detailed notes on their calls in order to compare them with other birds, notably the corbie and the gossiper or daggerbeak bird. The notes, recorded in a customized shorthand of ”bell-notes” drawn as curved lines, and “eyebrow waggling” described by means of angled lines, provide an unparalleled insight into the complexity of individual relations between these birds.