Two herons were circling above our street. Long, languid, cramp-necked, they rose from the river valley and wheeled a pattern over the suburban roofs. The jackdaws on the chimneys showed little reaction in their blue-bead eyes. But they miss nothing – and they were watching, idly.
It is April. The jackdaws are nest building; trying out chimneys for size. They are both fitful and laid back. Secure in their familial groups, fussing over twigs, stalking the road for insects, they pick up anything vaguely useful as nesting material and carry it back, both purposeful and half-hearted, to their respective chimneys of choice. They have a ‘that-will-do’ attitude as they plonk down their finds, and then seem to change tack and become like obsessed artists, Jackson Pollock-like, bending over their seemingly random creations, arranging and re-arranging.
The chimneys opposite our house are favourites with our jackdaw-neighbours, sometimes for nesting, but mostly just as places to gather, survey the scene. It is touching to see the bonds each mating pair exhibit; how they remain together, life companions, all year round, mutually preening and sharing in meaningful jackdaw collusion.
These pairs are each part of the larger group which seems to revolve its days around these streets. From here, the members of the flock spread out in satellite manoeuvres, separating into small groups or pairs, but remaining constantly connected by lines of jackdaw communication and family bonding. Open a door or window, and a cacophony of jackdaw chat bounces in, via the corvid-telegraph.
Some evenings, I’ve looked out to see them calling each other to dusk-gatherings on the roofs. Obediently, they arrive in ones and twos, and land, poised and listening. Then, once each flock member is accounted for, a dominant jackdaw will say the word - and, as if on the beat of a single collective wing, they will swoop like a feathered shadow towards the woods to roost.
In The Rookery, a chapter from the deeply treasure-filled pages of Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees, Deakin draws our attention to another chapter in another book – a favourite inspiration from his boyhood. He describes how, in his formative years, he would often pick up Konrad Lorenz’s King Solomon’s Ring and re-read, over and over, Lorenz’s account of ‘…how, beginning in 1927, he raised a whole colony of free-flying jackdaws at his home in Altenberg in Austria, with the object of studying their social and family behaviour.’ Over time, Lorenz identified and learnt to recognise a variety of words in the Jackdaw vocabulary. Deakin tells us:
‘Most interesting of all is Lorenz’s discovery of the subtle distinction between ‘Kia’ and ‘Kiaw.’ The first is the cry uttered in flight by the dominant jackdaws to urge the whole flock outward to new feeding grounds. The second is to urge them home. Thus, ‘Kiaw’ plays a vital role in maintaining the integrity of the flock when one meets another.
Most birds seem to keep their song quite separate from their language. The staccato alarm cry of a wren or blackbird is quite distinct from its sweet song. Jackdaws, however, incorporate their words into their songs to create, as Lorenz puts it, something more like a ballad, in which they can re-create past adventures or directly express emotions. Not only this, but the singer accompanies the different cries with the corresponding gestures, quivering or threatening like the lustiest performer passionately enacting a song. In a way, the jackdaw is mimicking itself….. but it may also, Lorenz thinks, be expressing emotion. When a marten broke into the roosting aviary at Altenberg and killed all but one of his jackdaw flock, the lone survivor sat all day on the weathervane and sang. The dominant theme of her song, repeated over and over, was ‘Kiaw’, ‘Come back, oh, come back.’ It was a song of heartbreak.’
- From Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin, published by Hamish Hamilton:
What ballads, I wonder, did the ancestors of ‘our’ jackdaws sing, before these houses were built? What world did they then describe? And did they ever call for it to come back, when it was lost?
According to old maps – and to the stories told to us by our elder neighbours – sixty, seventy years ago, this land, where our house now stands, was a margin of orchards, fields and market gardens – a ribbon of green stretching to meet the woods and river valley. In the pre- and post- World War Two years, new housing crept across the fields, spreading further and further outward from the city, leaving vigorous green gaps, and plunging watery valleys – and a new songline for the jackdaws to adapt to and follow. These houses, the tarmac, television aerials, the gutters and chimneys all grew to become incidentals of the jackdaws’ world, morphed by the birds’ use into look-out posts, nesting sites, drinking water catchments, navigable features of a landscape. Younger jackdaw generations grew up always having known these streets – perhaps singing a particular ballad that belongs just here, and to this time in its jackdaw history.
But maybe, that ballad too will soon be out of date – an ode to past times. Throughout these streets, fewer and fewer houses are keeping their front gardens. More and more people have paved theirs over as hard standing for cars. When we first moved to this house, our elderly neighbour had a garden that was typical of many around here – bursting with the fruits of his labour and time – and brimming with stories of his life, this place, this landscape. Over the garden wall, Jack would tell us those stories, in his quiet way, his words softly drawn out from his memories, and spun on the ballad-lilt of his West Country accent. All along the front wall, ever-increasing crowds of daffodils reminded him of the long-past day he had spent planting those bulbs with his toddler daughter. Each spring, that shared moment would renew over and over before the eyes of both dad and daughter – evidence of belonging; past, present and future. Beautiful rose bushes punctuated other events – birthdays and anniversaries; and fuchsias blazed colour along the margin between our two front paths, to guide our footsteps home. But several years ago, Jack passed away – and his garden, his roses, his daughter’s daffodils are now all gone.
But here, this side of the wall – though we don’t gift our front garden the time and effort Jack spent on his – we’re holding to a little mantra that keeping it, letting it breathe, gives something to the landscape and brings many rewards – not least a better view than the back-end of a car bumper from our kitchen window…
But best of all, is the wildlife it attracts. The jackdaws, along with many other birds, love our little “lawn”. It’s a ragged, hybrid mix of grass and “weeds” with messy edges and long sprouting tufts of grass against the wall, full of insects, whirring with grasshoppers in the summer – even a frog or two sometimes.
A few years ago, we were faced with the necessity of big disability adaptations to our house for our son. During all those long months of building work, the front lawn inevitably became torn to shreds by skips, piles of bricks and breezeblock, and afterwards we had to re-seed to restore the grass. It’s taken a couple of years for that to find its equilibrium – but, it won’t be long before, with encouragement and planting, it will have regained something of its old character. In the years just before our building work, springtime outbreaks of primroses and cowslips graced that ragged patch of green – and many a time, I would glance out of the window to see a passer-by given a visible lift as they caught sight of them. Their yellow exuberance hardly ever failed to raise a smile.
Smiles, interest and entertainment are often provided during my washing up hours, courtesy of the jackdaws, as they sidle around that small green space with their tip-and-stalk gait. They are both comical and deadly serious, both gentle and keenly ready for life’s difficult business.
The most arresting thing about them is their eyes – piercing blue and full of intelligence. They have a don’t-mess-with-me glint, whilst enclosing a whole world of tribal bird knowledge…
… all carried off with a demeanour that shrugs off the day’s moments with humour, whilst still pinning each one with close attention.
If we humans could pin the turning of the earth’s moments with that kind of close attention, maybe we would leave more room to lay them bare and breathing – to give the soil space amongst all the block-paving and tarmac – ready to open up to the circling of herons overhead, the glint of a watching bird’s eye, the blackbird wrestling with a worm, the daffodils planted by a child’s hand, guided by her dad to meet the earth, over half a century ago.
Perhaps we could tune in better to the very rhythm of living itself, and let our words and stories align with an old and – if we’ll let it – ever-renewing ballad.