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The jackdaw: identification and nesting habits

David Chapman / 12 October 2020

The jackdaw is the smallest crow in the UK and is often seen nesting on rooftops. Find out how to tell it apart from other crows.

Jackdaws are recognisable by their grey nape and pale grey eye, which is blue in juveniles. Photograph by David Chapman.

An eagle swooped down from a high rock and pounced upon a lamb, grazing near her mother in the field. With a great beating of powerful wings he seized the lamb and flew away to his nest.

A jackdaw saw the deed and his silly head was filled with the idea that he was big and strong enough to do as the eagle had done. So, spying a sturdy old ram below him, he bore down with all the force he could muster, intending to carry the ram off as a prize. He fastened his claws in the wool and tugged with all his might. But nothing happened. As a matter of fact, the ram wouldn’t have known he was there if it had not been for the jackdaw’s frantic efforts to disentangle his claws from the wool.

The jackdaw’s squawking attracted the attention of the shepherd, who came up and caught him and clipped his wings and took him home to the children for a pet.

This is one variation of a fable written by Aesop which purportedly dates back over two thousand years and yet shows a remarkable insight into the character of the jackdaw.

Other variations of the tale are attributed simply to ‘a crow’ rather than the jackdaw but I think there can be little doubt that he was thinking of the jackdaw when it was written and the lack of specific identity might have been due to the species not having an individual name at that time.

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Jackdaws are often seen collecting wool from sheep and goats to build their nests.

Telling the difference between jackdaws and other British crows

Jackdaws (Corvus monedula) are a member of the crow family, a group which has eight species in the UK: magpie, jay, chough, carrion crow, hooded crow, raven, rook and jackdaw. Of these the jackdaw is the smallest, in fact the name ‘jack’ has often been used to describe something which is smaller than another of its kind, another example is the jack snipe. The other part of the jackdaw’s name, ‘daw’, is likely to be descriptive of the bird’s call but the same name was also used for the carrion crow which is similar in appearance and call.

So the jackdaw is literally a small crow but with close inspection it’s plumage is quite distinct from the carrion crow because it has a grey nape which contrasts with a very black forehead. The jackdaw also has a much daintier bill and a strikingly pale eye, which in youngsters is blue and very attractive. All of this gives the jackdaw a much more appealing profile compared to the carrion crow.

The jackdaw is a gregarious bird, often found in flocks. This feature alone distinguishes it from all other crows except the chough (which is very rare) and the rook with which jackdaws often associate. Rooks are much bigger than jackdaws with a long white beak and slightly scruffy appearance.

As darkness approaches in autumn and winter jackdaws and rooks gather, sometimes at quite large roost sites, and perform a murmuration a little reminiscent of starlings but with a more interesting range of calls. Their habit of flocking together has brought both species into conflict with farmers over the centuries. Henry VIII ordered that all communities should trap and kill rooks, crows and choughs because of their impact on grain crops. By choughs he meant jackdaws. This is another example of how the names of crow species have been confused over the centuries. In fact jackdaws were accused of a crime by association because although rooks might eat a lot of grain jackdaws do not.

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Jackdaw roost in tree tops

Breeding and nesting habits of the jackdaw

Jackdaws are generally a very trusting and friendly bird, they pair for life and often associate with people. Of the crow family they are the most likely to be seen close to humans whether that is picking up our scraps of food in town centres or nesting in our chimneys.

In wilder areas jackdaws make their nests in tree cavities but in urban areas they have a strong association with buildings such as churches. When we started to build houses with chimneys they moved in. In fact so strong did the association become that the jackdaw quickly became known as ‘the chimney bird’ or ‘the chimney sweep bird’.

Jackdaws are probably very intelligent but when it comes to making nests they have a fairly random approach which involves taking very long sticks and dropping them into a hole. Eventually one or two sticks lodge in position and they can build a platform. This process has brought them into conflict with householders who are not keen on having lots of inflammable materials up the chimney above their open fire! This is probably why we became nervous of jackdaws and it was regarded as an ill-omen to have one enter the house, especially if it came down the chimney.

If the jackdaw is able to create a firm foundation for their nest they then collect a whole host of different nesting materials including mud and wool to make a structure on which they can lay eggs. Their habit of collecting wool direct from the sheep’s back explains the origin of Aesop’s fable and indicates why this fable must have been in reference to jackdaws rather than any other member of the crow family.

I have often seen jackdaws on the backs of sheep, goats and deer but I am yet to see one which I think might have been hoping to carry the sheep away! The sheep or goat isn’t concerned by the jackdaw because it isn’t a threat, in fact it might be doing the host a favour by pecking off a few skin parasites between collecting beak’s full of wool.

The intelligent, friendly nature of the jackdaw has led to it being quite popular through history as a pet. They have quite an interesting vocabulary, are easily tamed, are extremely faithful and, it seems, might even be trained to fetch sticks!

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.