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Ian Morton takes a look at the jackdaw, a bird with a real affinity for man — despite a chequered reputation in our history and literature. Jackdaws are pleasing to watch. Solemnly and methodically, they stalk the lawn, unhurried in their search patterns, neat and tidy and dignified in their bearing. Unlike the larger and clamorous cousins with which they often flock, their phrases are clipped, their conversations brief. They pair for life, share food and, when the male barks his arrival at the nest, the female responds with a softer, longer reply.
They like manmade structures.
Many are the stories told by individuals who scooped up stranded fledglings in need and were rewarded with a bemusing trust and friendship. Jackdaws recognise human faces and studies by Cambridge zoologist Auguste von Bayern concluded that they respond to human expressions.
This interplay has encouraged and enabled research. From the s, the Austrian ornithologist Konrad Lorenz, founder of modern ethology, determined a strict social hierarchy within jackdaw groups collectively called trains or clatterings.
However, when a female is selected as a mate, she assumes the same rank as her partner and is accepted as such by all others in the group, upon whom she may impose her status by pecking. Dr Lorenz also discovered that, although the birds normally pair for life, jackdaws in captivity tend to form same-sex pairs. Jackdaws are among many species that may form same-sex pairs, he declared. Jackdaw Corvus monedula pair perched on a bush bordering flooded marshland, Gloucestershire. The apparent lackadaisical attitude of jackdaws on procreation seems to have had no bearing on population.
After ificant reduction of British s in the s, Corvus monedula is flourishing, with 1. In four sub-species, the bird is found from Scandinavia to North Africa and as far east as central Asia. Our jackdaw was classified in the 18th century by Carl Linnaeus for its habit of picking up bright objects, particularly coins monedula being from the same Latin stem, monetaas money.
The best-known literary jackdaw is found in the Ingoldsby Legends of R. Barham, the Jackdaw of Rheims. Jackdaw s are thinned on some shoots, but, in the wider world they represent little threat. Corvids are blamed en masse for small-bird losses, yet magpies, grey squirrels, cats, changes in land use and habitat destruction are the major culprits. Indeed, its diet confirms this.
Insect and animal constituents spanned earthworms, woodlice, spiders, mice, frogs, snails, slugs, eggs and young birds. Vegetable matter included cereals, potatoes, cherries, berries, walnuts and poultry and game feed. All of this identifies the jackdaw as a useful ally in pest control and only an occasional opportunist feeder on other species. Dialect variants included ka, kae, caddow, caddesse, chauk, college bird, jackerdaw, jacko, ka-wattie, chimney-sweep bird and sea-crow.
Red deer Cervus elaphus stag with his friend, a Jackdaw Coloeus monedula during the rutting season. These enigmatic birds have a place in folklore, too. A jackdaw on the roof was said to proclaim a new arrival, but might also be a portent of early death.
In the Fens, a jackdaw encountered on the way to a wedding was a good omen. The bird was well known in the Classical world, but its reputation wavered. Ovid declared that the jackdaw brought rain.
Pliny admired it as a destroyer of grasshopper eggs. A legend among early Christians declared that corvids were indeed white and took black plumage in mourning after the Crucifixion — except magpies, which were too busy pilfering to grieve properly, so turned only partially black. It attracts no public regard apart from taking care not to step in it, but it plays a big role. It may be diminutive, but the perky-tailed wren has a powerful song and the ancient title of king among birds.
Home Nature. Credit: Alamy.
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