The Urban Countryside, The Jackdaw

by Albert Nolan

The meeting had been running for several hours and my attention was starting to wane. Thankfully a short break was called and I strolled over to the window to see if anything interesting was happening. I had an excellent view from the top floor and the streets were full of casual shoppers but very little wildlife. Next i scanned the roof tops and was delighted to find a pair of Jackdaws resting on the slates of an adjacent building.

These are highly intelligent members of the crow family and are very familiar birds of our streets and gardens. Traditionally they would have nested in tree holes and cliff ledges but the chimney pots on our roofs make an ideal substitute. Near my house they nest each year in tall conifer trees that sway dramatically in the wind. This can lead them into conflict with people as they will keep on dropping sticks down the chimney but this can be easily avoided by placing a cowl over the pot. Jackdaws eat a wide variety of food from earthworms, seeds, caterpillars and scraps discarded by people. When they are
feeding they move like clockwork toys with short jerky movements.

A few years ago a friend of mine was repairing a roof and Jackdaws were building their nest in the chimney. I jumped at the opportunity to get a closer look at their nesting habitats. I balanced precariously on the ridge and gently peered inside. The nest was located about two feet down on a narrow ledge. It was constructed of grass and scraps of newspapers and their were small pieces of shiny paper scattered around the nest. Usually they would use sticks but these can be in short supply in a city center and this shows the adaptability of these birds. The parents returned nosily and I quickly moved back.
The Jackdaws also had their own secret garden. The old slates were covered in colourful lichens and instead of a lawn there was lush green moss. On the old red brick chimney Polypody ferns were growing in profusion. This was a secret world that we rarely get to see and I felt very privileged to be able to experience it.

Jackdaws are very social birds and have a wide repertoire of calls for communicating. They can become very tame if you feed them regularly and this lead to a very strange incident. I have been feeding the Jackdaws at the front of my house for years and each Spring I would follow their nesting antics and with parental interest the first flight of the chicks. The young birds utter a distinctive begging call that stimulates the adults to give them food. I was the sitting room when I heard a fierce commotion outside. I went outside to investigate and found that one of the fledglings had been killed by a car.
Naturally I removed it from the road and I can still hear the harsh calls of the assembled birds. Suddenly they took flight and did not return to my house for several weeks. Was I in some way held responsible for the untimely death? This is question that I have never been able to satisfactory answer. The short break is over and I return to my seat and leave the mysteries of the Jackdaws for another day.

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