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A Bird For Valentine

12 Feb 2015

Which bird do you most associate with Valentine’s Day? Cooing Turtle Doves? Romantic, graceful Swans? 

Perhaps it should be a bird that to us is often “hidden in plain sight”, which we have probably seen today but not really taken any notice of, the Jackdaw.

A male will start feeding his mate even before the nesting season begins, pushing food deep into his partner’s throat.  Partners in a Jackdaw ‘marriage’ support each other loyally and bravely in every type of conflict.  To say Jackdaws fall in love is not to invest them with human attributes but rather shows the still remaining animal instincts in humans. The betrothal always precedes the physical union by a long period of time.  They usually start a protracted courtship in the spring following their birth, even though they do not become mature until the following year. The males puff themselves up in self-display and if he knows his intended is watching will deliberately provoke other males to show off.  He will also defend a suitable nesting site even though it will not be needed yet. It may actually be a poor site but it seems it is the defending of it that will impress his mate.  He ceases these antics as soon as she flies away but her quick glances make her realise his efforts are for her attention alone. Her glances are just long enough to let him know she knows.  (If she is not interested she will not give any glances and he soon gives up trying.) As he then proudly advances, she squats and quivers her tail and wings in affectionate submission. She correspondingly now becomes, as a betrothed female, with the increased status that brings, more self-confident and assertive towards other members of her colony. 

From that day forward, hardly ever separated by more than a few yards, they live their lives together. They are very affectionate and make infantile sounds towards each other, reserved by adult Jackdaws for these occasions – just like humans often do too! His chief expression of affection is feeding her; hers is preening his head feathers that he cannot reach himself. Although friendly Jackdaws give mutual social grooming to one another, none do it with the intensity of a love-struck female, preening for minutes on end (this is a long time for a Jackdaw to do anything, except perhaps sleep).  As she preens, he slowly stretches his neck towards her, eyes half-closing in bliss.

What is most appealing though is that the romantic intensity (unlike with humans!) continues as long as they both shall live; he feeds her with such care, approaching her uttering low tones tremulous with emotion and still whispers sweet nothings. They remain true to the death although widows and widowers will often find new mates if they can. 

Haddo has a large and thriving Jackdaw colony. They seem to especially like the gardens of Haddo House and a few years ago saw off an Osprey who had the impertinence to roost atop one of the Giant Redwoods!  The smaller birds repeatedly dive-bombed and generally harassed the larger.  In the end the Osprey, having no peace, went elsewhere. There are Jackdaw nests in the three old doo’ cots on the Pheasantry roof.  An old nest can be seen sticking out of one of the little arched doorways of the middle one.       

This week's blog was written by David Brown, Aberdeenshire Council Ranger for Formartine