Three of four times a day a small flock of jackdaws arrives in my garden, like a gang of leather-clad motorcyclists looking for trouble. They swoop down and land on the lawn chattering noisily, and swagger about looking for food. If there isn’t any, they will fly off to a nearby chestnut tree or roof, from where they keep watch. Even if I can’t see them, I know they can see me. I only have to throw a few pieces of bread on the lawn and they’re back in seconds.
I like jackdaws: I like their chattering call, somewhat like a dog’s yap, and their marvelous agility in fight. They’re rough, rude, and have a kind of cocky devil-may-care, character. They’re extremely gregarious, rarely seen alone and often in the company of rooks and humans. But that doesn’t mean we have a comfortable relationship with them.
The name jackdaw probably comes from Jack, meaning small, and Daw, the Olde English name for a crow. They’re one of the brightest of the corvid family, which is itself noted for its powers of observation and ability to solve puzzles. Jackdaws have an engaging social life, not unlike that of some humans. They are monogamists, and usually choose a mate quite early on, long before breeding starts. They spend their whole life within their flock, and are faithful to their partner up to death. They have a pronounced social hierarchy, and the young males like to establish their status early. If a subordinate female should mate with a superior male she will adopt his status and change her behaviour accordingly. Jackdaws are strong conformists to their social order: when one dies, the other is likely to be shunned by the flock, and even killed. Jackdaws have been known to commit ‘mercy killings’ on ailing birds.
They love bright objects. In The Jackdaw of Rheims, a poem by Richard Harris Barnham, a jackdaw takes his pleasure among the guests dining at the Cardinal of Rheims’s table. He’s a cheeky upstart, an irrepressible alien who wheedles his way into the established court:
In and out
Through the motley rout,
That little Jackdaw kept hopping about
Here and there
Like a dog in a fair,
Over comfits and cates,
And dishes and plates,
Cowl and cope, and rochet and pall,
Mitre and crosier! he hopp’d upon all
With a saucy air
He perch’d on the chair
Where, in state, the great Lord Cardinal sat…
With a satisfied look, as if he would say,
We two are the greatest folks here to-day!”
But his uppity nature gets the better of him. Unable to resist temptation, he steals the Cardinal’s precious turquoise ring. The Cardinal, outraged but unable to detect the culprit, places a curse upon him.
It works. The next day the jackdaw reappears:
His feathers all seem’d to be turn’d the wrong way;
His pinions droop’d—he could hardly stand,
His head was as bald as the palm of your hand;
His eye so dim,
So wasted each limb,
That, heedless of grammar, they all cried:
“THAT ’S HIM!”
Shamed, the little jackdaw leads them to his nest, whereupon the ring is discovered. Luckily the Cardinal is in a forgiving mood, and grants him absolution. Thereafter he becomes a bird of great piety and a loyal servant, nudging the sleeping members of the congregation into wakefulness with a sharp Caw! Upon his death he is rewarded by being made a sort of saint, known – somewhat cynically one cannot help but feel – as Jim Crow.
The association between jackdaws and thievery goes deep. A crowbar, sometimes a tool of burglars, is called a ‘jimmy’. Barnham’s poem was written about a few decades after the song, Jump Jim Crow, which caricatures black people, was popular in the USA, and it’s possible he had it in mind. The Jim Crow laws were an integral part of the racist culture of the southern states.
The term still carries unhealthy resonances, echoing ancient prejudices: a rock on the shore of Dunoon in Scotland has long been known as Jim Crow rock for its resemblance to a Jackdaw’s head. It has recently been decorated with a ‘blackface’ image that is far from flattering.
Jackdaws, like their larger relatives, command an enduring fascination. They’re clever, often beautiful, but we share an uneasy relationship, and they speak to deep forces within us.
Ted Hughes’s poem Crow is one of the most powerful expressions of these forces:
Who is stronger than death?