Saturday, 21 June 2014

Jackdaws at Midsummer

June 21st, 2014

It was a fine day last Thursday. Wisps of cirrus and dispersing vapour trails drew a light veil over the blue sky. The business of jackdaws in the trees behind my house reached a climax that afternoon.

Blue-skies flocking

I call this land behind the Bungalow the Wilderness: a domain of brambles, nettles, elders and elm suckers, which may once have been a field. Muntjac and rabbits skulk there, and the blackcap sends out jets of pure lyric beauty in summer. Its eastward boundary is a long, thin rectangular pond of mediaeval date shrouded by tall oak and ash trees. The pond brims up in winter, but soon shrinks away leaving a blackened pit of detrital mud. For some reason the local jackdaws have made this belt of trees their focus for the last fortnight.

Ask Konrad Lorenz what jackdaws have to say. His years of study at Altenberg  identified a range of calls such as kia, kiaw, zick and yip, also rattles and churrs. Kia means 'let's fly abroad' and kiaw means 'let's fly home' [1]. Karrr means 'threat'; the main flight call is a cheerful, 'metallic and squeaky' chyak.
For the past two weeks a chorus of kia and chyak has been ringing from the belt of trees and swirling round the neighbourhood. When it started I assumed that a nest of jackdaws had fledged from a hole in one of the trees, perhaps the largest oak, with much joyous 'let's fly abroad' communication. They were then joined by other local families, perhaps from the grounds of Ivy House three hundred yards away, where several mature oaks contain nest holes.

Lately, all the families have joined together in a rabble of playful exploration. They fly around the estate in loose, shifting flocks, calling to each to each continually, circulating among leafy ash summits and stag-horned oaks. Some drop to the sheep field and forage for insects in the close-cropped turf. Others scramble about among the branches hoping to be fed. They seem to be living a swirl of impulses, like children crying out "let's do [such & such]", then waiting to see how the collective will picks up the idea and runs with it. 

 From Wood's 'Natural History. Birds' (London, 1864)
'Fly with me' call-notes, says Lorenz, are "purely indicative of the mood of the bird in question and are in no way a conscious command. These completely unintentional expressions of individual feeling are as of highly infectious a nature as yawning in human beings. It is this mutual mood-infection which ensures that all the jackdaws finally act concertedly[3]So the swirl of activity among the jackdaws here seems to be flickering of moods and social conjugations, testing out ideas and linkages, coming to decisions then abandoning them - in fact, classic teenager activity. I think my jackdaws are learning and testing out their life skills. I have watched a begging fledgling being instructed by a parent how to get food from sheep droppings.

On Thursday afternoon the mood was extremely expansive: the jackdaws wanted to be up and flying high. Loose flocks were forming and reforming aloft, riding the thermals - splitting and diving, rising and swapping, overlapping. I took my binoculars and watched them, enchanted. The sky was alive with kia and chyak, pealing from lofty distances. Black specks approaching from the south resolved into four individuals drawn from further afield, the parish of Eye. They passed overhead, ignoring the largest cluster of their fellows, before breaking down and entering a group. This commotion was attracting attention, and a few rooks had come to investigate as well as me.

There are 72 jackdaws in this photo. Many more are out of view to the left.

Lorenz spent years fostering and studying a jackdaw colony at Altenberg. Here in the parish of Brome and Oakley, I suspect several families have lately been raised in this attractive, wooded corner of Suffolk. For some reason they have now made the land round the Bungalow their flocking place; in previous years the wooded belt has only yielded carrion crows. This year it has hosted jackdaws. I am worried that my neighbours will classify them as a nuisance, and try to drive them away by shooting a few. I can't see the point, as they are very companionable birds, 'of infinite wit and humour, and one that has an extraordinary attachment for man and his habitations' [4]. Studies have shown that each mates for life [5].

High on the stag-headed oak in the Bungalow garden today, a few jackdaws are busy socialising. One catches sight of me looking up from far below and gives a karrr alarm call; they take flight. Ten seconds later the bare branches of the tree are occupied by more individuals. I am part of their perceptual universe, as they are of mine. I doubtless signify 'non-jackdaw' and 'predator' to them, but for me they signify 'companion' and 'friend'. They are part of my community, and the fact that they have chosen the Bungalow area as 'significant place' pleases me. I like to think that they see it as a secure place for bringing up young, a 'magical environment' as Jacob Von Uexküll might have put it [6], though I am afraid a few gunshots from my neighbour could change all that.


[1] - Lorenz, K (1952): King Solomon's Ring. New light on animal ways; Methuen & Co, Ltd, London; p.169.

[2] - Western Jackdaw; Wikipedia - [accessed June 2014]
[3] - Lorenz, ibid; p.170.
[4] - Wood, JG (1864): The Illustrated Natural History. Birds; Routledge, Warne & Routledge, London; p.398.
[5] - Western Jackdaw; ibid.
[6] - Uexküll, Jacob Von (2010): A Foray into the Worlds of Humans and Animals; University of Minnesota Press; p.119 ff.

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