Lessons in jackdaw frolics

’Tis the season for jackdaw spotting and Dick Warner has everything you need to know.

A noisy flock of about a dozen jackdaws flew into my airspace and I took a break from gardening to watch them. There was a stiff breeze and they were flying into the wind. They reached a clump of trees, dominated by a large Scots pine, which was obviously diverting the breeze and causing an up-draft.

This was an irresistible opportunity for a bit of fun and they spent the next 10 minutes making the most of it.

They operated in pairs, taking it in turns to allow the updraft to toss them into the sky and then falling back in a complicated series of dives and rolls, flattening out just before they hit the ground. Then they joined the queue and watched the other pairs perform while they waited for their next go.

It was a lovely day, despite the breeze, warm and sunny. One of the first days of the year that actually felt like spring. It had encouraged a battered looking peacock butterfly out of hibernation and it had left the garden shed to flutter past me in a rather groggy way.

It was tempting to believe that the jackdaws were playing a game to celebrate the end of winter. I also knew that this is a dangerously unscientific line of thought which could end up in the sin of anthropomorphism.

Jackdaws lay their eggs in April and it’s much more likely that the behaviour was some kind of courtship display or pair bonding to prepare for nest building. They have been extensively studied by several experts, including the father of ethology, Konrad Lorenz himself.

We know that pairs usually form when the birds are two years old and that they normally stay together for life. We also know that they tend to live in small colonies and that there is a strict hierarchy or pecking order in each colony.

The hierarchy is male dominated but a mated female automatically acquires the status of her husband — so a female jackdaw can improve her station by marrying well.

It was probably this strict hierarchy which dictated the order in which the pairs queued up to dive into the updraft. Each male bird, with his equal status mate, knew his place and knew when it was his turn.

However, we know something else, something which is interesting and much more recent than the classic behavioural studies of the 20th century. They are members of the crow family and we are discovering all crows are amazingly intelligent.

In fact, with the possible exception of parrots, they are the most intelligent birds. Communal crows, such as rooks and jackdaws, also display a slightly different kind of intelligence to that of more solitary species like ravens or hooded crows.

This means it’s possible I wasn’t guilty of anthropomorphism and the jackdaws were just playing.


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