The name for this little crow likely comes from “jack”, meaning “thief”, and “daw”, after its clipped, jagged call. Here’s another fun fact: it was also a nickname for Hitler.
Thanks to his penchant for stealing valuable art, the former Führer was called the “Jackdaw of Linz”. But you’ll be pleased to know the similarities end there. Aside from filching shiny objects, this silvery Eurasian crow happily shares its winter roost with other corvids. There’s also loyalty and honour among “thieves”.
The jackdaw pairs for life, but although they get together in their first year, the couple won’t normally breed until the next, despite a 5-year life span. They bond by mutual preening and sharing food like insects, other young birds, eggs and seeds. The latter is essential, so if it forgets date night and dallies with another jackdaw, it’s headed for a rare “divorce”! You’ll occasionally find same-sex pairs or ménages-à-trois too. Regardless, once it’s in a group, it’s all for one and one for all.
They don’t just look after each other when sick. If a jackdaw is caught by a predator, its relatives will attack it with a specific vocalisation, which I hope is a stream of corvid obscenities.
Proving it’s not the only one who wears a mask, Davidson et al. found that, using frightening and neutral face coverings, jackdaws can recognise individual humans too.
So yet another bird whose nest you don’t want to mess with. It would be too much hassle anyway.
Nest is best
Trees, cliffs and chimneys are its usual digs, but the jackdaw builds its nest to fill the available space, so one found in an attic was 2.4 metres (8 feet) across and almost a metre (3 feet) high! The clutch ranges from 2-9 eggs, but for insurance purposes, the first two don’t count. Then it’s a chick challenge for the Highest Head. The prize? The most food, and best chance at survival.
Fortunately, despite being labelled as vermin from the 16th-19th century, it’s one of few birds not threatened by humans. On the whole it’s enjoyed an affectionate, if bizarre, place in folklore too.
Dark bird, bright history?
Helpfully covering both odds, a jackdaw on your roof meant a new arrival or an early death. It was also believed to be white before the death of Christ, at which point it donned its black feathers in mourning. Perhaps less respectfully, one cheeky flitter in the poem The Jackdaw of Rheim stole a cardinal’s ring, but was then made a saint for returning it. In one Greek island legend it was the jackdaw being snatched. The son of an evil ogre queen disguised himself as one so his beloved princess could smuggle him away and live happily ever after.
So for a black bird that usually does the stealing, the jackdaw hasn’t been demonised too much in legends or the modern day. Perhaps that was to balance out the genocidal madman association?
Latin: Corvus monedula
What? Small crow species with a silver cowl or black mask, depending on how you look at it.
Where? Europe and central Asia
How big? 34 cm / 13 inches long, wingspan 70 cm / 28 inches
Endangered? Nope, Least Concern and very abundant.
Probable motto: I love family and bling in equal amounts.
They look cool. Do they need my help at all?
Nope, the jackdaw is happy enough hopping about in urban, suburban and rural environments across Europe and central Asia. Just as well really, because if we did happen to threaten it, it knows our face…
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
“4 Facts about jackdaws that you might not know“. 2017. Scottish Wildlife Trust.
Barham, Richard Harris. (1788-1845.) “The jackdaw of Rheims“. Bartleby.
Boucherie, Palmyre H. et al. 2018. “Not much ado about something: behavioural mechanisms of pair bond separation and formation in long-term pairing rooks“. Ecoscience 25(1):71-83.
Brown, Arthur. 1952. “Folklore elements in the medieval drama“. Folklore 63(2):65-78.
Claggett, Shalyn. 2018. “The animal in the machine: punishment and pleasure in Victorian lantern shows“. Nineteenth-Century Contexts 40(1):1-18.
Colley March, Hy, and Paton, W.R. 1900. “Dorset folklore“. Folklore 11(1):107-126.
Curio, E. 1993. “Proximate and developmental aspects of antipredator behavior“. Advances in the Study of Behavior. ScienceDirect.
Davidson, Gabrielle L. et al. 2015. “Wild jackdaws, Corvus monedula, recognize individual humans and may respond to gaze direction with defensive behaviour“. Animal Behaviour 108(2015):17-24.
Harding, John. 2012. “The crow next ‘daw’: jackdaw“. Bird Table.
“Jackdaw“. No date. RSPB.org.
“Jackdaw“. No date. The Wildlife Trusts.
Morton, Ian. 2018. “11 things you never knew about the jackdaw, the bird that just loves people“. Country Life.
Featured image credit: Jackdaw, via Pixabay