Jackdaws, Breathing Earth… and Ballads of Belonging

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.


6 thoughts on “Jackdaws, Breathing Earth… and Ballads of Belonging

  1. Fascinating stuff about the jackdaws – so much bird lore and language going on alongside all the human activity, it makes me think of an alternative reality where the events of the natural world replaced all our media’s celebrity coverage… I suppose blogging about it is fighting back!

    Really moving when you think of the old characters and the love they put into their homes and gardens – a way of life where we’re at one with the jackdaws and the herons and the hedgehogs. I see so much targetting of trees (always the native species it seems) as too big, too leafy, too seedy (how can people mind leaves?), Convenience seems to rule everything again this last decade, it’s like the 50s and 60s sweeping away heritage – every aged cottage that gets ‘improved’ with plastic windows, all the centuries of character pristine-plastered over in seconds, I hear a lone bell toll and mourn a passing. But there’s much to be optiimistic about, everything’s in cycles.

    Lovely writing in looking beyond the built landscape, and how our lives weave in and out of it, like the jackdaws and herons seeking out the pockets of ‘wild land’… and that everyday space of gazing out while washing up – a very under-estimated place in our lives, they’re the creative hours I think!

    • Thank you for your really lovely and, as always, thoughtful response… Your words about trees sometimes being targeted as too leafy, too seedy etc. reminded me of the saga of the bushes on the green opposite where I grew up… my parents did their best to save them (they’d been a feature of their landscape for forty years, providing beauty for onlookers – and food, shelter and nesting for wildlife) – but new neighbours didn’t like the bushes’ berries falling onto the pavement for a couple of weeks each year! They didn’t rest until they’d succeeded in having them uprooted – and then moved away only a couple of years later, leaving my parents feeling bereft of something they’d loved… My mother-in-law also told me recently about a campaign by some of her neighbours to get rid of a beautiful old street tree, because the leaves fall on their cars in autumn! Luckily, the tree is protected by a tree preservation order.

      It’s difficult because I’m acutely aware that, in some cases, changes are reluctant and forced by genuine necessity (as is the case with some of our neighbours)… but too often trends serve to highlight how much priorities can begin to revolve around convenience and ever increasing numbers of cars etc… As you say though, things do go in cycles, so we can find reasons for optimism. Recently, a ‘Costing the Earth’ programme on Radio 4 reported a definite cooling off trend in the love affair with the car in the U.K and U.S.

      Fortunately, around here we still have lots of leafy, green space and trees – I’m just hoping the cycle will turn in the front gardens’ favour again, now that they are beginning to disappear in what seems to be a national trend… We still have quite a few guardians of the front garden here, especially in our elder neighbours. When she was little, my daughter was fascinated by the flower-filled oases they’d created, and when she (very frequently) stopped us on our daily walks to stand and admire them, each gardener would be delighted to see her reaction and would chat to her over the walls, and tell her the names of the plants… Community – and creativity, as you say, are so often forged in such moments…

  2. “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…” I haven’t read a line as beautiful and meaningful as that for some time, Melanie. It stopped me in my tracks, even after such lovely phrases as “blue-bead eyes” and “dusk-gatherings on the roofs.” Your careful observations has opened a door into a corvid world here, one that resonates deeply with me. The dark, wheeling bands of jackdaws tend to signal autumn here, when their calls crack open the crisp, cool skies. There is a sense that they bring a new season with them, unstitching the old on the wing. Thanks ever so much for this marvellous tribute and celebration of places that jackdaws call home. It’s left me looking up into the sky.


    • Julian, I feel so touched and honoured that my words have evoked such a marvellous response as this in you! In finding my gradual way through this wordsmith craft, pouring words into a melting pot, trying to fashion them into shape, sending them out into the world – I’m always unsure whether they will have captured any real meaning or sense of connection for other people. That’s what I most hope for when I write… and to know that something I’ve written has resonated like this for you is truly encouraging, heart-warming and uplifting.

      Thank you so much, Julian, for your kind words and wonderful message, seamed through with the spun gold of phrases that, in turn, stopped me in my tracks. You capture, with such precision and beauty, the way jackdaws somehow claim the autumn season as their own…

      All the best,

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