A History Of Birds. Jackdaw
Jackdaw. Originally this bird was called simply the daw – a name that was probably imitative of its call. The prefix ‘jack’ may have been added as an endearment, in a similar manner to Tom Tit or Maggie Pie (magpie). Jonathan Swift seems to endorse this explanation in his poem Salamander (1705):
As mastiff dogs, in modern phrase, are
Call’d Pompey, Scipio, and Caesar;
As pies and daws are often styl’d
With Christian nicknames, like a child
People from all walks of life were familiar with jackdaws. They were confiding, cheeky, even thievish when food was around, and the name Jack was customarily associated with a certain boldness of character: Jack Frost, Jack-a-napes, Jack the Giant Killer, little Jack Horner and so forth. The jackdaw’s popularity is borne out by many contemporary descriptions that reveal a fondness for the bird’s personality and behaviour. For example, Edward Stanley, Bishop of Norwich, wrote a widely read book about birds in 1838:
The habits of a jackdaw are known to everybody; wherever found, he is the same active, bustling, cheerful, noisy fellow. Whether in the depth of a shady wood remote from cities and from towns, or whether established in the nooks and niches of some Gothic cathedral tower in the very midst of the world, it matters not to him. He seems to know neither care nor sorrow – ever satisfied – always happy! Who ever saw or heard of a moping, melancholy jackdaw?
An alternative – or maybe complementary – theory for the bird’s name suggests that instead of being purely an endearing sobriquet, the title ‘jack’ was chosen because it was sometimes taken to mean ‘little’ in the past. Jackdaws, of course, are small members of the crow family.
Jackdaws have a varied diet and so were easy and cheap to keep as pets; they could occasionally be taught to say a few words or whistle a tune, and contemporary accounts often note these birds’ loyalty to their owners. The author Jane Roberts wrote an account of a voyage to Australia and back in the 1830s and describes a pet jackdaw called ‘Jones’ that the captain’s wife kept on board. He had a cage, but was very sociable and was allowed the freedom of the ship while at sea, to the delight of passengers and crew:
Jones was the cleverest and most amusing bird possible: he whistled certain tunes, which he repeated on the deck and on the poop, and then came to inspect and interfere with everything in the cuddy [‘saloon’]. … At dinner he was generally one of the party, going from plate to plate for what he wanted. Sometimes, indeed, he attempted to help himself without leave, and then he was scolded, but in a tone of voice to give encouragement rather than reproof.
As Roberts describes, jackdaws are sociable birds. In the wild, they live together in communities and even in ancient times, this was remarked upon. The Greek philosopher Aristotle refers to a contemporary proverb that noted, ‘Similar persons are friends; whence also it is said: “like tends to like; a jackdaw to a jackdaw”.’ This has the same meaning as our more modern phrase ‘birds of a feather flock together’. Jackdaws like to nest together on cliffs and in tree holes, but have readily adapted to the niches in manmade environments that occur on tall buildings such as churches. This seems to be a longstanding relationship: for many centuries they were reported as nesting atop the lofty sarsens of Stonehenge.
Jackdaws have a well-known propensity for making their homes in chimneys and towers, but their nests of dry sticks can be a fire risk. For example, the conflagration in 1816 that destroyed Shanes Castle, seat of the O’Neill family in Antrim, was reputed to have been caused by jackdaw nests in the chimney catching fire. York Minster was ravaged by a fire in 1840, caused by a careless clockmaker who left a candle burning, but contemporary commentators attributed the rapid spread of the blaze to the many jackdaw nests in the tower where the fire started.
There is a limited amount of superstition associated with the jackdaw. Perhaps the most persistent story is that sighting a solitary jackdaw is bad luck – a rather uncommon event given the jackdaw’s gregarious nature. In the eleventh century, William of Malmesbury told the tale of a woman who heard a jackdaw chattering, and predicted it heralded great ill fortune. Apparently it did, because she soon learned that many of her family had died in an accident. Workmen in Bristol reacted with dismay when a lone jackdaw sat on a chain spanning the river Avon during the construction of the Clifton Suspension Bridge; shortly afterwards, one of them was seriously injured in an accident. A jackdaw falling down your chimney has been considered particularly likely to spell ill fortune.
Like the crow, the jackdaw has been regarded as an intelligent bird. The seventeenth-century ornithologist Francis Willughby notes, ‘The head of this bird, in respect of its body, is great, which argues him to be ingenious and crafty: which is found true by experience.’ Many owners of tame jackdaws noted their bird’s ability to recognise individuals or to learn from experience.
Scientific support for this behaviour came from Cambridge University in 2015. A researcher wore a particular mask whenever she approached jackdaw nests to weigh their chicks – a behaviour that the paren birds understandably found threatening. The scientist wore a different mask if she was just walking by. The parent birds rapidly learned to attend their nests more quickly if a researcher appeared wearing the ‘chick-weighing’ mask than the ‘walking past’ mask, demonstrating an ability to recognise individual human faces.
A History of Birds by Simon Wills