MY first acquaintance with a member of the jackdaw tribe is still well impressed on my mind, although it occurred many years ago, because of the amusing and interesting circumstances attending it. It was a pet jackdaw at liberty, and I came upon it as I was passing through a cluster of about thirty cottages, the yards of which had become merged into one large open space, the dividing palings having gradually disappeared. In this space, to my astonishment, was a jackdaw.
It was such an unlikely place in which to find one of these birds that one's first thoughts would naturally be of the dangers he was exposed to from the cats and dogs which roamed about the place.
The jackdaw was pulling bits of meat from a bone which he held down with his foot.
Of course, I paused and watched the big black fellow with considerable interest.
Presently through a hole in the fence behind the 'daw came a big tabby cat, crouched low and moving forward in the slow and deliberate but intense manner of hunting cats. He was about seven yards from the bird, which he was evidently stalking with all the stealth and calculation of his kind.
Becoming alarmed for the safety of the jackdaw, who had his back to the feline and was absorbed in his meaty bone, I called to a young woman, who was leaning against the post of an open door while engaged in knitting, to get her attention to the situation, as I supposed she was the owner of the bird.
"It's all right," she answered, without looking up. I concluded she was either callous or stupid. Having approached to within three feet of the busy bird, the cat paused for a moment, and with swinging tail tip concentrated for the spring. Then he launched himself with outspread claws and the wonderful speed of springing felines and landed right on thespot where the bird had been an instant before. It next became evident that the latter had been all the time quite aware of the cat and its intentions, for with consummate ease he avoided the cruel claws by a sideways jump (a similar movement to what is known in boxing as side-stepping), and before the cat had realized exactly what had happened, down came the great beak on his head with, it seemed, sufficient force to crack its skull. Hurt and startled, the tabby quickly swung away from the bird, who thereupon seized its tail and gave it a vice-like nip. With a howl the terrified feline streaked across the open space and over the fence in a manner that was funny enough to make a man with a toothache smile. This death-threatening incident left the bird quite unperturbed, and the self-possessed and grave demeanour with which he uttered a guttural ejaculation, which sounded like "Bah!" as he continued his bone-picking, was delightful.
I elicited from the young woman that the cat which had just learnt his lesson was a newcomer, having arrived a few days previously with a new tenant.
Also that, with the exception of a very old one, all the cats, and one or two dogs in the neighbourhood, had each in turn received much the same rebuff in their efforts to slay "Jack," or to give him his full name, "Happy Jack," so that now he was held in great respect by these four-footed members of the community. To illustrate this, she went to the opposite side of the open space and called to her cat. He came from indoors and was making directly towards her, but on seeing Jack in the line of his march, he instantly changed his direction and carefully made a detour to his mistress.
None of the fifteen cats of the locality had ever succeeded in getting a claw on Jack; but all carried a painful memory of the hitting power of the big bird's beak.
It was one of the amusements of the youths of the cottages to rustle a piece of paper in imitation of wings when a cat was slowly making his way in dignified fashion across the open space. The sound rarely failed to "electrify" the cat into a scared scurry, in which the erstwhile dignity of deportment all disappeared. You can imagine it. The girl, I found, was not the owner of Jack, but he had attached himself to her, and on her bestowed nearly all his affection and attention. Jack had several recreations. Few things gave him more pleasure than to stand on the girl's shoulders and search through her hair for hairpins (this was, of course, before the advent of the short-hair fashion). When he found one, it was quickly extracted with a loud "chark" of triumph and carried off, to be secreted under the couch indoors. Thus most of the hairpins in use frequently made the journey to and from the cache under the couch. Another pastime of his was to stand on the back of the couch and endeavour to peck or scrape the gold off a picture frame. The persistence of his efforts was surprising. The gold seemed to have an irresistible fascination for him, and he never tired of his attempts to remove it. In outdoor amusements his chief delight was in digging up stones from the path. The tighter the stone was embedded the more he seemed to enjoy getting it out, and he rarely failed to do this. His modus operandi was to "pick" the soil away, with sounds of many heavy thuds, all round the stone, so that he could get his beak a little underneath; then a mighty up-pull usually brought it out, and the successful accomplishment of the operation was announced in several loud, triumphant "charks," which were equivalent, I suppose, to the words, "Alone I did it." In addition to his winsome ways and affectionate disposition, Jack had a full share of the intelligence of his kind: if he should find himself by an oversight shut out at dusk he made the situation known to the girl by flying on to the window-sill and tapping on the window till he was taken indoors.
Now we will take a peep into the life of the jackdaw in nature. It is generally found in the neighbourhood of human habitations; and because it has enjoyed comparative immunity from molestation by gunshot, much of the natural fear of man has become eliminated from its mind. It is a very sociable bird, and in the breeding season many pairs may be found nesting together. At other times, if he fails to find enough associates of his own kind, he and his wife will join up with the rooks. When flying in such company, they may be distinguished by their smaller size and quicker wing action. The jackdaw, being a hole builder, selects as a nesting site a hole in a tree, or chinks and holes in towers, church steeples, parapets of bridges, crannies in cliffs, etc.,the situation is always an elevated one. The nest is made with small sticks, upon which are laid dried grasses, being finished off with a lining of wool or feathers, or some soft material. Sometimes a great quantity of sticks is used, if the hole is a large and deep one. One nest I examined in a hollow tree was composed of sufficient material to fill a large barrow. The eggs are from four to six in number, usually five. They are bluish-white in colour, with spots of dark brown and purplish-grey, most of the spots being at the larger end. The jackdaw generally lays her eggs about the middle of May. By the way, you may consider yourself smart if you ever succeed in seeing one of these cunning birds enter or leave the nest-holeif it is in a tree near a dwelling In its feeding, the jackdaw is of immense assistance to farmers and large gardeners, as its diet consists chiefly of worms, grubs, insects and other small vermin; but it cannot be trusted where game eggs or chicks offer a temptation when it is hungry. The "song" of the jackdaw seems to be comprised of the word "chark," from which originated, probably, the prefix jack to the generic name daw.
It may not be inappropriate to give, in conclusion, a little story of one result of teaching a jackdaw to talk. Some years ago an innkeeper, residing at Aylesbury, taught his pet jackdaw to say the words, "Mind the reckoning!" with the idea, of making the frequent utterance of them by the bird act as a warning to reckless customers, who were likely to order more refreshment than they could pay for, and then ask for credit. The innkeeper eventually retired from business, but even then, on one occasion, the remark of the bird proved remarkably useful, saving his master's property, if not his life. This happened one night when two burglars broke into the house, entering by the window of the room wherein hung the cage in which the daw slept. While they were holding a whispered consultation as to which room it would be advisable to visit as likely to yield them a good haul, a, gruff voice came out of the darkness, saying "Mind the reckoning!" With no idea that it was a jackdaw talking, but believing themselves discovered, the burglars stood not upon the order of their going, but dashed out by the window like two drunken acrobats, causing the bird to ejaculate a contemptuous "chark!" as he wiped his beak. And echo seemed to answer with the thud of the burglars as they hit the ground outside.