Jackdaws (Corvus monedula) were originally known as 'choughs', a name derived from the bird's principal call. Jackdaws also utter chattering calls, which sound like the word 'Jack' and so this name also caught on. 'Daw,' or 'caw', is the typical call of the Rook. 'Crow' is a variant of 'caw'. From about the late 16th Century onwards, 'Jack the daw' meaning 'the Jack-crow' began to replace the older name 'chough'.
Another crow, traditionally known as the 'Cornish Chough', has retained the name 'Chough'. This species, which has a red bill and red legs, is found on the sea-cliffs of the west of Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
Jackdaws are endearing birds. The second smallest of our crows (the Magpie is smaller), they are lively, tolerant of people and swagger about in an amusing manner. However, they can block chimneys with their nests.Captive Jackdaws are said to be good mimics.
How to identify Jackdaws
Jackdaws associate with Rooks, but it is easy to tell the two species apart. A Jackdaw is about one third smaller than a Rook and is stockier. Both birds are black but the Jackdaw has a grey back to its head and neck. The Jackdaw's conspicuous white eye gives him a unique 'personality'.Adult Rooks, by contrast, have grey faces but the head and neck are black. Rooks have dark eyes.
Where do they live?
Jackdaws are found throughout Ireland. They can occur in almost any location. They like woodland and farmland but have adapted well to cities and towns. You will also see them on the coast and on sea cliffs. They particularly like fields with plenty of sheep and cattle. The livestock keep the grass cropped short. This helps the Jackdaws to find the beetles and insect larvae in the soil. Also, the feet of livestock disturb the soil, exposing the larvae. Sheep will tolerate Jackdaws on their backs. The birds pull out ticks and take wool for their nests.
Jackdaws are great scavengers and frequent rubbish dumps. In severe weather many move closer to human habitation.Jackdaw numbers have increased in Ireland in the last hundred years. It is estimated that we have about half a million of them at present. Jackdaws, in this part of Europe, are sedentary but foreign birds visit us in winter.
What do they eat?
Jackdaws are general feeders. They eat insects, snails, slugs, worms, frogs and mice, as well as vegetable matter, including cereals, fruit and berries. Flies on cow-pats are a particular favourite. Jackdaws will jump into the air to catch flying insects. The birds will circle high in the air to catch swarming ants.
Very opportunistic, some Jackdaws seek unusual prey. They have been recorded taking bats from a roost. Birds' eggs are occasionally taken, sometimes those of Herons. Puffin and Guillemot eggs are vulnerable at seabird colonies. Jackdaws can open milk bottles and have been observed pulling up stringed peanut feeders to get at the nuts. There is even a record of co-operative hunting, where a Jackdaw provoked a Puffin into leaving its nesting burrow, enabling the Jackdaw's mate to 'nip in' and steal the egg!
Jackdaws and Rooks tend to feed together. Rooks dig for their food whereas Jackdaws go more for the surface insects and snails.Like most crows, Jackdaws hide food, which they retrieve later, but they do so to a much lesser extent than Rooks.
Throughout most of the year Jackdaws live in small loose flocks (seldom more than 40 birds). There is a loose hierarchy within a flock. The highest rank goes to paired males who possess a nest-site. Males are dominant to females. Older birds are higher in the peck order than younger ones. In winter, Jackdaws and Rooks congregate in trees to roost. These can number tens of thousands of birds. In recent winters, there has been an impressive concentration in the grounds of Malahide Castle.
Pairs form in the birds' first year. There is a period of familiarisation. The partners preen each other on their heads and necks. Courtship feeding of the female by the male may take place at any time of the year, but is particularly important to her during the breeding season.
Most Jackdaws pair for life and remain paired when in flocks. Divorces tend to occur when the birds are young. The longer birds are together the stronger the bond between them. Even after several failed breeding attempts, a pair will usually remain together. Divorce is expensive. A divorced bird loses its nesting site and its rank in the flock. Bigamy, in which a male may have two females on nests, occurs occasionally.
Jackdaws are loose colonial nesters, although some pairs nest on their own. The pair defends a small territory in the immediate vicinity of the nest.
Technically, Jackdaws are songbirds. We don't normally think of their chattering and rasping as a song, but this is a prejudice on our part. Jackdaws have a complex vocal communications system. Song tends to be given when the male is alone and he may sing from a perch or in flight. The chattering song is quiet and complex and can last from several minutes. The functions and significance of Jackdaw calls and songs are not well understood. Although recorded in captive birds, mimicry is not known in the wild and nobody knows why captive Jackdaws become mimics.
Copulation usually takes place at the nest, but it has been recorded in flocks and at unusual times of the year. During the laying stage, the male guards the female constantly. This helps to ensure that no rival gets to fertilise the eggs and that the rightful mate, who will have to work hard for several weeks, is supporting his own young. Mating has been recorded during incubation, the male mounting when the female was turning the eggs.
Jackdaws may nest when they are a year old, but most pairs begin nesting at the age of two.The nest is usually in a hole in a tree, building or cliff. There may be a shortage of suitable holes. Several pairs will use holes which are close together, forming a breeding colony.
Both partners build the nest and huge quantities of sticks can be gathered. Very long sticks are collected at first. These form the base of the nest. Progressively, smaller sticks are added as the structure develops. The cup of the nest is lined with hair, grass or fur. Jackdaws will perch on the backs of horses or sheep pulling out hairs with which to line the nest. Occasionally, a pair builds an open nest in a tree. The nest may even have a roof.
Eggs are laid from the second half of April onwards. There are usually between four and six, although there can be as many as eight. Eggs are laid daily, but there may be a gap of two or even three days. The female does the incubating and the eggs hatch after about 17 days. She usually starts after the second or third egg, but she may wait until the last one is laid. If she starts incubating before all the eggs are laid, some eggs hatch earlier than others.
The young from the eggs which hatch first have a head start on the later ones. They are bigger than their siblings and get most of the food. With a plentiful supply of food all the young can survive, but if food is scarce, the smaller late chicks will starve to death. This is known as 'asynchronous hatching' and is a way of ensuring that, with a variable food supply, nothing is wasted and that as many chicks as possible are raised.
The young are born blind, naked and helpless. Both parents feed them on insect larvae. The babies can fly when about 30 to 35 days old. They become independent of their parents about five weeks after leaving the nest. Jackdaws produce only one brood each year. Replacement clutches are unusual for Jackdaws.
Jackdaw eggs are taken by rats and, very occasionally, by squirrels or domestic cats. Other Jackdaws may steal eggs and young, although they don't eat them. Large birds of prey such as the Peregrine or the female Sparrow-hawk take both adult and newly-fledged Jackdaws. Foxes will take newly-fledged young.
Mortality is high among young Jackdaws. On average, between one and two young fledge per nest. Between 30% and 40% of fledged birds die in their first year. Survival is only slightly better in subsequent years. The oldest Jackdaw recorded in the wild was 14 years old.
An excellent summary of our knowledge of Jackdaws is given in the Handbook of the Birds of Europe the Middle East and North Africa. The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Volume IX. Editors Cramp & Perrins. 1994.
'Jackdaw facts'. Richard Collins. Revision 2. 11th May 2000.