Thursday, 27 October 2011

Village lovers

If I had to choose one sound to describe this village it would be 'chack'. A raucous, echoey, many-voiced 'chack' that explodes from rooftops, trees, even telegraph wires, whenever I'm walking round the village.

Jackdaws live here, roosting in the tall trees that surround the play park, nesting in the chimneypots of those whose fires stay unlit, and hanging about on rooftops like bored teenagers waiting for some action. The British Trust for Ornithology says they love living in villages - near to people, but also near to fields where they forage in unruly groups for grassland invertebrates.

Like arable weeds jackdaws get little attention. They're too common - with over 500,000 pairs in the UK at the last count. But just like many arable weeds they are quite stunning. I watched a flock of them this morning, feeding in one of the horse fields to the north of the village. Spearing the ground with their short, spikey beaks, they were searching for breakfast. They moved across the field like clockwork toys: walk, stop, probe, look about... walk, stop, probe, look about... The field guide describes they gait as 'jaunty', but it looked more purposeful than that to me. More like a military goose-step, I'd say. From a distance they appeared to be black, but through the binoculars I could see the steely grey, lawyer's wig on the nape of their necks that marked them out from the bigger crows they were feeding with.

Away from the fields I sometimes see them from the skylight window above my desk, sitting in the top of the sycamore opposite in couples, preening or daydreaming. Apparently they pair for life, and stay in their couples all through the year. Even the usually very proper Collins Bird Guide describes them as looking 'amorous' when they sit like this, so I don't have too many qualms about sounding anthropomorphic.

Their scientific name, Corvus monedula, means 'raven that eats money', a nod perhaps to their reputation as thieves, stealing jewellery and money to decorate their nests. This trait may have been the origin of the Greek myth of Arne of Thrace, who was turned into a jackdaw after she shopped her country to Minos of Crete in return for a bag of gold. It's a great story - far from being commoners and rogues, we are surrounded by Greek princesses in disguise!

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