Aug. 20, 2012

The Fabled Jackdaw

by Kara Rogers

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The small, crow-like jackdaw has an unusual fondness for visually intriguing things and things it has never seen before, from shiny stones to crinkly candy wrappers. Its curiosity, however, has long gotten it into trouble, so much so that “noted for its loquacity and thievish propensities” once appeared under the definition of jackdaw in the Oxford English Dictionary.
 
The jackdaw (Corvus monedula), also known as the Western, or European, jackdaw, is the smallest member of the crow family. It is common across its range, which extends from Europe to northern Africa and western Asia, and it is conspicuous, owing to its punchy step, stocky body, crystalline blue eyes, and dark plumage.
 
The jackdaw's mischievous behavior figures prominently in English translations of four stories belonging to the collection of Aesop's Fables. The four works include: The Vain Jackdaw (or The Bird in Borrowed Feathers), The Eagle and the Jackdaw (or The Eagle, the Jackdaw, and the Shepherd), The Jackdaw and the Pigeons (or variously, “and the Doves” or “and the Peacocks”), and The Escaped Jackdaw. Similar to other Aesop's Fables, these stories draw on character flaws (more accurately, what humans perceive and define as flaws) of the jackdaw to teach moral values.
 
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The first three of these stories portray the jackdaw as envious, wanting, for instance, the more beautiful feathers of other birds or the strength of the eagle. The Escaped Jackdaw, however, is a more complex, and darker, tale. In this story, a jackdaw has been caught and given to some children as a pet. The bird earns the trust of the children and eventually escapes. But just as the jackdaw realizes his freedom, a string that had been tied around his leg becomes tangled in a tree. The story concludes with the jackdaw's words, “Alas, in gaining my freedom I have lost my life.”
 
In the nonfictional world, the jackdaw is a remarkably intelligent animal. Like other corvids (birds of the family Corvidae), it has a relatively large brain, comparable in proportion to body size as that of the chimpanzee, which has one of the largest brains in proportion to body size outside of the human species. Many corvids are also highly social. The jackdaw, for instance, congregates into large flocks in winter and often forages in groups. It takes cues from kin and peers about the location of food and engages in complex food-sharing behavior, which often is reciprocal, with individuals taking turns as donors and recipients.
 
The jackdaw's intelligence and curiosity, however, perpetuate the bird's tendency to get into trouble. One of its more infamous doings was documented in 1989–90 in England and South Wales, where it had been photographed in the act of removing the caps and drinking from milk bottles delivered to peoples' homes. People who drank the milk fell ill with bacterial infections caused by strains of Campylobacter. Researchers isolated the organisms from pecked milk bottles and traced them back to jackdaws and magpies (a close relative of the jackdaw), implicating the birds as the source of the outbreak.
 
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About Kara Rogers

Kara is a freelance science writer and senior editor of biomedical sciences at Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. She is the author of Out of Nature: Why Drugs From Plants Matter to the Future of Humanity (University of Arizona Press, 2012).

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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