Konrad Lorenz won the Nobel Prize. He studied animal languages and behaviour. He could speak seventeen words of the Jackdaw bird language. He wrote “King Solomon’s Ring”. It’s a beautiful book about animals. A jackdaw and a sparrow fall in love with him. I love that part.
Below is Chapter 11 of his book. I tried to contact the copyright owners, but had no success. I post this for study purposes under Fair Use. It’s one of the best pieces of science ever written. It’s an enjoyable translation from German into English. I hope it inspires you.
KING SOLOMON’S RING
New Light on Animal Ways
KONRAD Z. LORENZ (1950)
Illustrated by the Author
Translated by MARJORIE KERR WILSON (1953)
THE REPRINT SOCIETY LONDON
With a Foreword by JULIAN HUXLEY
THE PERENNIAL RETAINERS
“Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour.”
In the chimney the autumn wind sings the song of the elements, and the old firs before my study window wave excitedly with their arms and sing so loudly in chorus that I can hear their sighing melody through the double panes. Suddenly, from above, a dozen black, streamlined projectiles shoot across the piece of clouded sky for which my window forms a frame. Heavily as stones they fall, fall to the tops of the firs where they suddenly sprout wings, become birds and then light feather rags that the storm seizes and whirls out of my line of vision, more rapidly than they were borne into it.
I walk to the window to watch this extraordinary game that the jackdaws are playing with the wind. A game? Yes, indeed, it is a game, in the most literal sense of the word: practised movements, indulged in and enjoyed for their own sake and not for the achievement of a special object. And rest assured, these are not merely inborn, purely instinctive actions, but movements that have been carefully learned. All these feats that the birds are performing, their wonderful exploitation of the wind, their amazingly exact assessment of distances and, above all, their understanding of local wind conditions, their knowledge of all the up-currents, air-pockets and eddies-all this proficiency is no inheritance, but, for each bird, an individually acquired accomplishment.
And look what they do with the wind! At first sight you, poor human being, think that the storm is playing with the birds, like a cat with a mouse, but soon you see, with astonishment, that it is the fury of the elements that here plays the role of the mouse and that the jackdaws are treating the storm exactly as the cat its unfortunate victim. Nearly, but only nearly, do they give the storm its head, let it throw them high, high into the heavens, till they seem to fall upwards, then, with a casual flap of a wing, they turn themselves over, open their pinions for a fraction of a second from below against the wind, and dive-with an acceleration far greater than that of a falling stone-into the depths below. Another tiny jerk of the wing and they return to their normal position and, on close-reefed sails, shoot away with breathless speed into the teeth of the gale, hundreds of yards to the west: this all playfully and without effort, just to spite the stupid wind that tries to drive them towards the east. The sightless monster itself must perform the work of propelling the birds through the air at a rate of well over 80 miles an hour; the jackdaws do nothing to help beyond a few lazy adjustments of their black wings. Sovereign control over the power of the elements, intoxicating triumph of the living organism over the pitiless strength of the inorganic!
* * * * * * * *
Twenty-five years have passed since the first jackdaw flew round the gables of Altenberg and I lost my heart to the bird with the silvery eyes. And, as so frequently happens with the great loves of our lives, I was not conscious of it at the time when I became acquainted with my first jackdaw. It sat in Rosalia Bongar’s pet shop, which still holds for me all the magic of early childhood memories. It sat in a rather dark cage and I bought it for exactly four shillings, not because I intended to use it for scientific observations, but because I suddenly felt a longing to cram that great, yellow-framed red throat with good food. I wished to let it fly as soon as it became independent and this I really did, but with the unexpected consequence that even to-day, after the terrible war, when all my other birds and animals are gone, the jackdaws are still nesting under our roof-tops. No bird or animal has ever rewarded me so handsomely for an act of pity.
Few birds-indeed, few of the higher animals (the colony-building insects come under a different heading)- possess so highly developed a social and family life as the jackdaws. Accordingly, few animal babies are so touchingly helpless and so charmingly dependent on their keeper as young jackdaws. Just as the quills of its primary feathers became hard and ready for flight, my young bird suddenly developed a really child-like affection for my person. It refused to remain by itself for a second, flew after me from one room to another and called in desperation if ever I was forced to leave it alone. I christened it “Jock” after its own call-note, and to this day we preserve the tradition that the first young bird of a new species reared in isolation is christened after the call-note of its kind.
Such a fully fledged young jackdaw, attached to its keeper by all its youthful affection, is one of the most wonderful objects for observation that you can imagine. You can go outside with the bird and, from the nearest viewpoint, watch its flight, its method of feeding, in short all its habits, in perfectly natural surroundings, unhampered by the bars of a cage. I do not think that I have ever learned so much about the essence of animal nature from any of my beasts or birds as from Jock in that summer of 1925.
It must have been owing to my gift of imitating its call that it soon preferred me to any other person. I could take long walks and even bicycle rides with it and it flew after me, faithful as a dog. Although there was no doubt that it knew me personally and preferred me to anybody else, yet it would desert me and fly after some other person if he was walking much faster than me, particularly if he overtook me. The urge to fly after an object moving away from it is very strong in a young jackdaw and almost takes the form of a reflex action. As soon as he had left me, Jock would notice his error and correct it, coming back to me hurriedly. As he grew older, he learned to repress the impulse to pursue a stranger, even one walking very fast indeed. Yet even then I would often notice his giving a slight start or a movement indicative of flying after the faster traveller.
Jock had to struggle with a still greater mental conflict when one or more hooded crows, common in this district, flew up in front of us. The sight of those beating black wings disappearing rapidly into the distance released in the jackdaw an irresistible urge to pursue which it never, in spite of bitter experience, learned to resist. It used to rush blindly after the crows which repeatedly lured it far away, and it was only by good luck that it did not get lost altogether. Most peculiar was its reaction when the crows alighted: the moment that the magic of those flapping black wings ceased to work, Jock entirely lost interest! Though a flying crow had such an overwhelming attraction for him, a sitting one evidently did not, and as soon as the crows landed he had had enough of them, was seized with loneliness and began to call for me in that strange, complaining tone with which young, lost jackdaws call for their parents. As soon as he heard my answering call he rose and flew towards me with such determination that he frequently drew the crows with him and came flying to my side as the leader of their troop. So blindly would the crows follow him in such cases that they were almost upon me before they noticed me at all. When finally they became conscious of my presence they were struck with terror and darted away in such a panic that Jock-infected by the general consternation-once again flew away after them. When I had learned to recognize this danger I was able to avoid complications by making myself as conspicuous as possible and thus warding off the approaching crows early enough to prevent a panic.
Like the stones of a mosaic, the inherited and acquired elements of a young bird’s behaviour are pieced together to produce a perfect pattern. But, in a bird that has been reared by hand, the natural harmony of this design is necessarily somewhat disturbed. All those social actions and reactions whose object is not determined by inheritance, but acquired by individual experience, are apt to become unnaturally deflected. In other words, they are directed towards human beings, instead of fellow-members of the bird’s species. As Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli thought of himself as a wolf, so Jock, had he been able to speak, would certainly have called himself a human being. Only the sight of a pair of flapping black wings sounded a hereditary note: “Fly with us”. As long as he was walking, he considered himself a man, but the moment he took to wing, he saw himself as a hooded crow, because these birds were the first to awaken his flock instinct.
When in Kipling’s Mowgli love is awakened, this all-powerful urge forces him to leave his wolf brothers and to return to the human family. This poetical assumption is scientifically correct. We have good reason to believe that in human beings-as in most mammals-the potential object of sexual love makes itself evident by characters which speak to the depth of age-old inheritance, and not by signs recognizable by experience-as evidently is the case in many birds. Birds reared in isolation from their kind do not generally know which species they belong to; that is to say, not only their social reactions but also their sexual desires are directed towards those beings with whom they have spent certain impressionable phases of their early youth. Consequently, birds raised singly by hand tend to regard human beings, and human beings only, as potential partners in all reproductive activities. And this is exactly what Jock did.
This phenomenon can be observed regularly in hand-reared male house sparrows, who, for this reason, enjoyed great popularity among the loose-living ladies of Roman society, and whom Catullus has immortalized by his little poem “Passer mortuus est meae puellae”. But there is no limit to the queer errors that may arise in this connection. A female barnyard goose which I now possess was the only survivor of a brood of six, of which the remainder all succumbed to avian tuberculosis. Consequently she grew up in the company of chickens and, in spite of the fact that we bought for her, in good time, a beautiful gander, she fell head over heels in love with our handsome Rhode Island cock, inundated him with proposals, jealously prevented him from making love to his hens and remained absolutely insensible to the attentions of the gander. The hero of a similar tragi-comedy was a lovely white peacock of the Schonbrunn Zoo in Vienna. He too was the last survivor of an early-hatched brood which perished in a period of cold weather, and to save him, the keeper put him in the warmest room to be found in the whole Zoo, which at that time, shortly after the first world war, was in the reptile house with the giant tortoises! For the rest of his life this unfortunate bird saw only in those huge reptiles the object of his desire and remained unresponsive to the charms of the prettiest pea-hens. It is typical of this extraordinary state of fixation of sexual desire on a particular and unnatural object that it cannot be reversed.
When Jock reached maturity he fell in love with our housemaid, who just then married and left our service. A few days later Jock discovered her in the next village two miles away, and immediately moved into her cottage, returning only at night to his customary sleeping quarters. In the middle of June, when the mating season of jackdaws was over, he suddenly returned home to us and forthwith adopted one of the fourteen young jackdaws which I had reared that spring. Towards this protege Jock displayed exactly the same attitude as normal jackdaws show towards their young. The behaviour towards its offspring must, of necessity, be innate in any bird or animal, since its own young are the first with which it becomes acquainted. Did a jackdaw not respond to them with instinctively established, inherited reactions, it would not know how to take care of them and might even tear them to pieces and devour them, like any other living object of the same size.
I must now dispel in the reader an illusion which I myself harboured up to the time when Jock reached sexual maturity; the kind of advances which Jock made to our housemaid slowly but surely divulged the fact that “he” was a female! She reacted to this young lady exactly as a normal female jackdaw would to her mate. In birds-even in parrots, of which the opposite is often maintained-there is no law of attraction of opposites, by which female animals are drawn towards men and males towards women. Another tame adult male jackdaw fell in love with me and treated me exactly as a female of his own kind. By the hour, this bird tried to make me creep into the nesting cavity of his choice, a few inches in width, and in just the same way a tame male house sparrow tried to entice me into my own waistcoat pocket. The male jackdaw became most importunate in that he continually wanted to feed me with what he considered the choicest delicacies. Remarkably enough, he recognized the human mouth in an anatomically correct way as the orifice of ingestion and he was overjoyed if I opened my lips to him, uttering at the same time an adequate begging note. This must be considered as an act of self-sacrifice on my part, since even I cannot pretend to like the taste of finely minced worm, generously mixed with jackdaw saliva. You will understand that I found it difficult to co-operate with the bird in this manner every few minutes!
But if I did not, I had to guard my ears against him, otherwise, before I knew what was happening, the passage of one of these organs would be filled right up to the drum with warm worm pulp-for jackdaws, when feeding their female or their young, push the food mass, with the aid of their tongue, deep down into the partner’s pharynx. However, this bird only made use of my ears when I refused him my mouth, on which the first attempt was always made.
It was entirely due to Jock that in 1927 I reared fourteen young jackdaws in Altenberg. Many of her remarkable instinctive actions and reactions towards human beings, as substitute objects for fellow-members of her species, not only seemed to fall short of their biological goal, but remained incomprehensible to me and therefore aroused my curiosity. This awakened in me the desire to raise a whole colony of free-flying tame jackdaws, and then study the social and family behaviour of these remarkable birds.
As it was out of the question that I should act as substitute for their parents and train each of these young jackdaws as I had done Jock the previous year, and as, through Jock, I was familiar with their poor sense of orientation, I had to think out some other method of confining the young birds to the place. After much careful consideration, I arrived at a solution which subsequently proved entirely satisfactory. In front of the little window of the loft where Jock had now dwelt for some time, I built a long and narrow aviary consisting of two compartments which rested upon a stone-built gutter a yard in width, and stretched almost the entire breadth of the house.
Jock was, at first, somewhat upset by the building alterations in the near neighbourhood of her home, and it was some time before she became reconciled to them and flew in and out freely through the trap-door in the roof of the front compartment of the aviary. It was only then that I proceeded to install the young birds, each of which had been made recognizable by coloured rings on one or both legs. From these rings the young jackdaws also derived their names. When the birds were all well settled in their new quarters I lured them into the rear compartment of the cage, leaving only Jock and the two tamest of the young birds, Blueblue and Redblue, in the front compartment, the one with the trap-door. Thus separated, the birds were again left to themselves for a few days. What I hoped to attain by these measures was that the birds destined for free flight should be held back by their social attachment to those who were still imprisoned in the hindmost part of the aviary. At this time, as I have already mentioned, Jock had begun to mother one of the young jackdaws, Leftgold, and this was very fortunate indeed as it brought about her return home at the right moment for the experiments I am about to describe. I did not choose Leftgold as one of the first subjects for release, because I hoped that, for his sake, Jock would remain in the precincts of our house, otherwise there was a risk of her flying off with Leftgold, who was now fully fledged, to live with my previously mentioned housemaid in the next village.
My hopes that the young jackdaws would fly after Jock as she had followed me were only partly fulfilled. When I opened the trap-door Jock was outside in a flash and, making one dive for liberty, within a few seconds had disappeared. It was a long time before the young jackdaws, mistrustful of the unaccustomed aspect of the open trap-door, dared to fly through it. At last both of them did so simultaneously, just as Jock came whizzing past again outside.
They tried to follow her but soon lost her as neither could imitate her sharply banked turns and her steep dives. This lack of consideration for the limited flying abilities of the young is not shown by good parent jackdaws, who meticulously avoid such flying stunts while guiding their offspring. Later, when Leftgold was freed, Jock also behaved in this manner, flying slowly and refraining from all difficult manoeuvring, looking back over her shoulder constantly to see whether the young bird was still following. Not only did Jock pay no attention to the other young jackdaws, but they, for their part, obviously did not realize that she was equipped with a most desirable local knowledge which they lacked and that she would have been a more reliable guide than one of their own companions. These silly children sought leadership among themselves, each one trying to fly after the other. In such cases, the wild, aimless circling of the birds impels them higher and higher into the sky, and as, at this age, they are quite incapable of descending in a bold dive, these antics invariably result in their getting lost, because the higher they mount, the farther they will be from home when they ultimately succeed in coming down again. Several of the fourteen young jackdaws went astray in this fashion. An old and experienced jackdaw, particularly an old male, would have prevented such a thing happening, as will be explained later on, but at this stage no such bird was present in the colony.
This lack of leadership revealed itself in another and even more serious way. Young jackdaws have no innate reactions against the enemies which threaten them, whereas a good many other birds, such as magpies, mallards or robins, prepare at once for flight at their very first sight of a cat, a fox or even a squirrel They behave in just the same way, whether reared by man or by their own parents. Never will a young magpie allow itself to be caught by a cat, and the tamest of hand-reared mallards will instantly react to a red-brown skin, pulled along the back of the pond on a string. She will treat such a dummy exactly as if she realized all the properties of her mortal enemy, the fox. She becomes anxiously cautious and, taking to the water, never for a moment averts her eyes from the enemy. Then, swimming, she follows it wherever it goes, without ceasing to utter her warning cries. She knows-or rather her innate reacting mechanisms know-that the fox can neither fly, nor swim quickly enough to catch her in the water, so she follows it around to keep it in sight, to broadcast its presence and, in this way, to spoil the success of its stalking.
Recognition of the enemy-which in mallards and many other birds is an inborn instinct-must be learned personally by the young jackdaws. Learned through their own experience? No, more curious still: by actual tradition, by the handing-down of personal experience from one generation to the next.
Of all the reactions which, in the jackdaw, concern the recognition of an enemy, only one is innate: any living being that carries a black thing, dangling or fluttering, becomes the object of a furious onslaught. This is accompanied by a grating cry of warning whose sharp, metallic, echoing sound expresses, even to the human ear, the emotion of embittered rage. At the same time the jackdaw assumes a strange forward leaning attitude and vibrates its half-spread wings. If you possess a tame jackdaw you may, on occasion, venture to pick it up to put it into its cage or, perhaps, to cut its overgrown claws. But not if you have two! Jock, who was as tame as any dog, had never resented the occasional touch of my hand, but when the young jackdaws came to our house it was a different story altogether: on no account would she allow me to touch one of these small black nestlings. As, all unsuspecting, I did so for the first time, I heard behind me the sharp satanic sound of that raucous rattle, a black arrow swooped down from above, over my shoulder and on to the hand which held the jackdaw baby-astonished, I stared at a round, bleeding, deeply pecked wound in the back of my hand! That first observation of this type of attack was, in itself, illuminating as to the instinctive blindness of the impulse. Jock was, at this time, still very devoted to me and hated these fourteen young jackdaws most cordially. (Her adoption of Leftgold took place later on.) I was forced to protect them from her continually: she would have destroyed them, at one fell swoop, if she had been left alone with them for a few minutes. Nevertheless she could not tolerate my taking one of the babies into my hand. The blind reflex nature of the reaction became even clearer to me through a coincidental observation later that summer. One evening, as dusk fell, I returned from a swim in the Danube and, according to my custom, I hurried to the loft to call the jackdaws home and lock them up for the night. As I stood in the gutter, I suddenly felt something wet and cold in my trouser pocket into which, in my hurry, I had pushed my black bathing-drawers. I pulled them out-and the next moment was surrounded by a dense cloud of raging, rattling jackdaws, which hailed agonizing pecks upon my offending hand.
It was interesting to observe the jackdaws’ reaction to other black objects which I carried in my hands. My large, old, naturalist’s camera never caused a similar commotion, although it was black and I held it in my hands, but the jackdaws would start their rattling cry as soon as I pulled out the black paper strips of the pack film, which fluttered to and fro in the breeze. That the birds knew me to be harmless, and even a friend, made no difference whatever: as soon as I held in my hand something black and moving I was branded as an “eater of jackdaws”. More extraordinary still is the fact that the same thing may happen to a jackdaw itself: I have witnessed a typical rattling attack on a female jackdaw who was carrying to her nest the wing feather of a raven. On the other hand, tame jackdaws neither emit their rattling cry, nor make an attack, if you hold in your hand one of their own young whilst it is still naked and, therefore, not yet black. This I proved experimentally with the first pair of jackdaws which nested in my colony. The two birds, Greengold and Redgold-two of the aforementioned fourteen-were completely tame, perched on my head and shoulders and were not in the least upset if I handled their nest and watched all their activities at close quarters. Even when I took the babies from the nest and presented them to their parents on the palm of my hand, it left them quite unmoved. But the very day that the small feathers on the nestling burst through their quills, changing their colour into black, there followed a furious attack by the parents on my outstretched hand.
After a typical rattling attack, the jackdaws are exceedingly mistrustful and hostile towards the person or animal which has given rise to it. This burning emotion stamps incredibly quickly into the bird’s memory an ineradicable picture which associates the situation “jackdaw in the jaws of the enemy” with the person of the plunderer himself. Provoke a jackdaw’s rattling attack two or three times running and you have lost its friendship for ever! From now on it scolds as soon as it sees you, and you are branded, even when you are not carrying a black and fluttering object in your hands. And further, this jackdaw will easily succeed in convincing all the others of your guilt. Rattling is exceedingly infectious and stimulates its hearers to attack as promptly as does the sight of the black fluttering object in the clutches of the “enemy”. The “evil gossip” that you have once or twice been seen carrying such an object, spreads like wildfire, and, almost before you know it, you are notorious amongst the jackdaws in the whole district as a beast of prey which must at all costs be combated.
In most respects, all this applies equally to crows. My friend Dr Kramer had the following experience with these birds: he earned a bad reputation among the crow population in the neighbourhood of his house, by repeatedly exposing himself to view with a tame crow on his shoulder. In contrast to my jackdaws, who never resented it if one of their number perched on my person, these crows evidently regarded the tame crow sitting on my friend’s shoulder as being “carried by an enemy”, though it perched there of its own free will. After a short time my friend was known to all crows far and wide, and was pursued over long distances by his scolding assailants, whether or not he was accompanied by his tame bird. Even in different clothing he was recognized by the crows. These observations show vividly that corvines make a sharp distinction between hunters and “harmless” people: even without his gun, a man who has once or twice been seen with a dead crow in his hands will be recognized and not so easily forgotten.
The original value of the “rattling reaction” is doubtless to rescue a comrade from a predatory animal, or, if this is impossible, so to harry the assailant that, filled with disgust, he will renounce the hunting of jackdaws forever. Even if a goshawk or other enemy were only slightly deterred by the rattling attack from hunting jackdaws, his ensuing preference for other prey would suffice to make the jackdaws’ reaction of great value for the preservation of their species. This original function of the rattling reaction is well developed in all the members of the crow family, including those species that are less gregarious than the jackdaw: similar reactions can even be found in small song-birds.
With the further development of social relations, particularly in the jackdaw, there arose in addition to the original significance of the “defence of kin reaction” a new and even more important meaning-that, through this behaviour, the recognition of a potential enemy can be communicated to the young and inexperienced birds. This is a real acquired knowledge, not a mere innate, instinctive reaction which is superficially similar to it.
I do not know whether I have made it quite clear how very remarkable all this is: an animal which does not know its enemy by innate instinct is informed by older and more experienced fellow-members of its species who or what is to be feared as hostile. This is true tradition, the handing-down of personally acquired knowledge from one generation to another. Human children might follow the example of the young jackdaws who take seriously the well-meant warnings of their parents. On the appearance of an enemy, as yet unknown to the young, an old guide jackdaw needs only to give one significant “rattle”, and at once the young birds have formed a mental picture associating the warning with this particular enemy. In the natural life of jackdaws, I think it seldom happens that an inexperienced young bird first receives knowledge of the dangerous character of an enemy by seeing him with a black dangling object in his clutches. Jackdaws nearly always fly in a dense flock, in whose midst there is, in all probability, at least one bird which will begin to “rattle” at the merest sight of an enemy.
How very human this is! On the other hand, how remarkably blind and reflex-like is the innate perceptual pattern which in the inexperienced young jackdaws provokes a typical “rattling attack”! But have not we human beings also such blind, instinctive reactions? Do not whole peoples all too often react with a blind rage to a mere dummy presented to them by the artifice of the demagogue? Is not this dummy in many cases just as far from being a real enemy as were my black bathing-drawers to the jackdaws? And would there still be wars, if all this were not so?
My fourteen young jackdaws had nobody to warn them of potential dangers. Without a parent bird to give warning by rattling, such a young jackdaw will sit tight while a cat slinks up to it, or alight on the very nose of a mongrel dog, and treat him as if he were as friendly and harmless as the people in whose midst he grew up. No wonder that my jackdaw flock shrank considerably in the first weeks of its liberty. When I realized this danger and its reason I released the birds only during the hours of full daylight, at a time when few cats were abroad. The task of enticing those birds back to their cage in good time every evening occasioned me much time and trouble. “Herding a sackful of fleas”- as the German saying goes-is a trifle compared with the problem of tempting fourteen young jackdaws into an aviary. I could not touch them, for fear of starting a rattling attack, and as soon as I had manoeuvred one bird, perched on my hand, through the door of the cage, two others flew out; and even if I used the foremost of the two compartments as a valve, the shutting-in process took at least an hour every evening.
The settlement of the jackdaw colony in Altenberg has cost me much work, more time-and much money, when I take into consideration the continual damage to the roof of our house. But, as I have said before, my trouble was richly rewarded. What a wonderful object for observation was this colony of completely free but absolutely trustful jackdaws! At that time-my “jackdaw time”-I knew the characteristic facial expression of every one of those birds by sight. I did not need to look first at their coloured leg-rings. This is no unusual accomplishment: every shepherd knows his sheep, and my daughter Agnes-at the age of five -knew each one of our many wild geese, by their faces. Without having known all the jackdaws personally, it would have been impossible for me to learn the inner secrets of their social life. Have you, dear reader, the slightest idea how long one must watch a flock of thirty jackdaws and how much time one must spend in close contact with them, in order to accomplish this end? It is only by living with animals that one can attain a real understanding of their ways.
Do animals thus know each other among themselves? They certainly do, though many learned animal psychologists have doubted the fact and indeed denied it categorically. Nevertheless, I can assure you, every single jackdaw of my colony knew each of the others by sight. This can be convincingly demonstrated by the existence of an order of rank, known to animal psychologists as the “pecking order”. Every poultry farmer knows that, even among these more stupid inhabitants of the poultry yards, there exists a very definite order, in which each bird is afraid of those that are above her in rank. After some few disputes, which need not necessarily lead to blows, each bird knows which of the others she has to fear and which must show respect to her. Not only physical strength, but also personal courage, energy and even the self-assurance of every individual bird are decisive in the maintenance of the pecking order. This order of rank is extremely conservative. An animal proved inferior, if only morally, in a dispute, will not venture lightly to cross the path of its conqueror, provided the two animals remain in close contact with each other. This also holds good for even the highest and most intelligent of mammals. A large Nemestrinus monkey bursting with energy, owned by my friend, the late Count Thun-Hohen-stein, possessed, even when adult, a deeply rooted respect for an ancient Javanese monkey of half his size, who had tyrannized him in the days of his youth. The deposing of an ageing tyrant is always a highly dramatic and usually tragic event, especially in the case of wolves and sledge-dogs, as has been observed and graphically described by Jack London in some of his Arctic novels.
The rank-order disputes in a jackdaw colony differ in one important way from those of the poultry yard, where the unfortunate Cinderellas of the lower orders eke out a truly miserable existence. In every artificial conglomeration of less socially inclined animals, such as in the poultry yard and the song-bird aviary, those higher in the social scale tend to set upon their comrades of lower rank, and the lower the standing of the individual, the more savagely will he be pecked at by all and sundry. This is often carried so far that the wretched victim, bullied from all sides, is never able to rest, is always short of food and, if the owner does not interfere, may finally waste away altogether. With jackdaws, quite the contrary is the case: in the jackdaw colony those of the higher orders, particularly the despot himself, are not aggressive towards the birds that stand far beneath them: it is only in their relations towards their immediate inferiors that they are constantly irritable; this applies especially to the despot and the pretender to the throne-Number One and Number Two. Such behaviour may be difficult for a casual observer to understand. A jackdaw sits feeding at the communal dish, a second bird approaches ponderously, in an attitude of self-display, with head proudly erected, whereupon the first visitor moves slightly to one side, but otherwise does not allow himself to be disturbed. Now comes a third bird, in a much more modest attitude which, surprisingly enough, puts the first bird to flight; the second, on the other hand, assumes a threatening pose, with his back feathers ruffled, attacks the latest comer and drives him from the spot. The explanation: the latest comer stood in order of rank midway between the two others, high enough above the first to frighten him and just so far beneath the second as to be capable of arousing his anger. Very high-caste jackdaws are most condescending to those of lowest degree and consider them merely as the dust beneath their feet; the self-display actions of the former are here a pure formality and only in the event of too close approximation does the dominant bird adopt a threatening attitude, but he very rarely attacks.
The degree of animosity of the higher orders towards the lower is in direct proportion to their rank, and it is interesting to note that this essentially simple behaviour results in an impartial levelling-up of the disputes between individual members of the colony. The gestures of anger and attack may also stimulate those against whom they are not directed. I myself, when I hear two people cursing each other in an overcrowded tramcar, have to suppress an almost uncontrollable desire to box the ears of both parties soundly. High-ranking jackdaws evidently feel the same emotion, but, as they are in no way inhibited by the horror of making a scene, they interfere vigorously in the quarrel of two subordinates as soon as the argument gets heated. The arbitrator is always more aggressive towards the higher-ranking of the two original combatants. Thus a high-caste jackdaw, particularly the despot himself, acts regularly on chivalrous principles-where there’s an unequal fight, always take the weaker side. Since the major quarrels are mostly concerned with nesting sites (in nearly all other cases the weaker bird withdraws without a struggle), this propensity of the strong male jackdaws ensures an active protection of the nests of the lower members of the colony.
Once the social order of rank amongst the members of a colony is established it is most conscientiously preserved by jackdaws, much more so than by hens, dogs or monkeys. A spontaneous reshuffling, without outside influence, and due only to the discontent of one of the lower orders, has never come to my notice. Only once, in my colony, did I witness the dethroning of the hitherto ruling tyrant, Gold-green. It was a returned wanderer who, having lost in his long absence his former deeply imbued respect for his ruler, succeeded in defeating him in their very first encounter. In the autumn of 1931 the conqueror, “Double-aluminium” -he derived this strange name from the rings on his feet- came back, after having been away the whole summer. He returned home strong in heart and stimulated by his travels, and at once subdued the former autocrat. His victory was remarkable for two reasons: first, Double-aluminium, who was unmated and therefore fighting alone, was opposed in the struggle by both the former ruler and his wife. Secondly, the victor was only one and a half years old, whereas Gold-green and his wife both dated back to the original fourteen jackdaws with which I started the settlement in 1927.
The way in which my attention was drawn to this revolution was quite unusual. Suddenly, at the feeding-tray, I saw, to my astonishment, how a little, very fragile, and, in order of rank, low-standing lady sidled ever closer to the quietly feeding Goldgreen, and finally, as though inspired by some unseen power, assumed an attitude of self-display, whereupon the large male quietly and without opposition vacated his place. Then I noticed the newly returned hero, Double-aluminium, and saw that he had usurped the position of Goldgreen, and I thought at first that the deposed despot, under the influence of his recent defeat, was so subdued that he had allowed himself to be intimidated by the other members of the colony, including the aforesaid young female. But the assumption was false: Goldgreen had been conquered by Double-aluminium only, and remained forever the second in command. But Double-aluminium, on his return, had fallen in love with the young female and within the course of two days was publicly engaged to her! Since the partners in a jackdaw marriage support each other loyally and bravely in every conflict, and as no pecking order exists between them, they automatically rank as of equal status in their disputes with all other members of the colony; a wife is therefore, of necessity, raised to her husband’s position. But the contrary does not hold good-an inviolable law dictates that no male may marry a female that ranks above him. The extraordinary part of the business is not the promotion as such but the amazing speed with which the news spreads that such a little jackdaw lady, who hitherto had been maltreated by eighty per cent of the colony, is, from to-day, the “wife of the president” and may no longer receive so much as a black look from any other jackdaw. But more curious still-the promoted bird knows of its promotion! It is no credit to an animal to be shy and anxious after a bad experience, but to understand that a hitherto existent danger is now removed and to face the fact with an adequate supply of courage requires more sense. On a pond, a despot swan rules with so tyrannical a rule that no other swan, except the wife of the feared one, dares to enter the water at all. You can catch this terrible tyrant and carry him away before the eyes of all the others, and expect that the remaining birds will breathe an audible sigh of relief and at once proceed to take the bath of which they have been so long deprived. Nothing of the kind occurs. Days pass before the first of these suppressed subjects can pluck up enough courage to indulge in a modest swim hard against the shores of the pond. For a much longer time, nobody ventures into the middle of the water.
But that little jackdaw knew within forty-eight hours exactly what she could allow herself, and I am sorry to say that she made the fullest use of it. She lacked entirely that noble or even blase tolerance which jackdaws of high rank should exhibit towards their inferiors. She used every opportunity to snub former superiors, and she did not stop at gestures of self-importance, as high-rankers of long standing nearly always do. No-she always had an active and malicious plan of attack ready at hand. In short, she conducted herself with the utmost vulgarity.
You think I humanize the animal? Perhaps you do not know that what we are wont to call “human weakness” is, in reality, nearly always a pre-human factor and one which we have in common with the higher animals? Believe me, I am not mistakenly assigning human properties to animals: on the contrary, I am showing you what an enormous animal inheritance remains in man, to this day.
And if I have just spoken of a young male jackdaw falling in love with a jackdaw female, this does not invest the animal with human properties, but, on the contrary, shows up the still remaining animal instincts in man. And if you argue the point with me, and deny that the power of love is an age-old instinctive force, then I can only surmise that you yourself are incapable of falling a prey to that passion.
A strange thing, this “falling in love”. The metaphor expresses the psychical process with a drastic sense of realism-an audible bump, and you are in love! It would be impossible to symbolize it more aptly. And in this connection, many higher birds and mammals behave in exactly the same way as the human being. Very often even in jackdaws the “Grand Amour” is quite suddenly there, from one day to the next-indeed most typically, just as in the case of man, at the moment of the first encounter. Marlowe says:
“The reason no man knows; let it suffice,
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight;
Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?”
This famous “love at first sight” plays a big role in the life of wild geese and jackdaws, and this may be most impressive for the observer. I know of a number of cases where love and troth were plighted on the occasion of the first meeting. The continual presence of the loved one is not so conducive to this state of mind as one might at first imagine. It can even be disadvantageous. At any rate, a temporary parting may achieve that which was hindered by years of intimacy. In the case of wild geese, I have repeatedly noticed that a betrothal was pledged when two fairly close friends met again after a fairly long separation. Even I myself have been affected by this quite typical phenomenon-but that is another story.
Many of my readers, particularly those with some psychological education, will have raised their eyebrows critically at the word “betrothal”: it is customary to consider the animal as more or less “bestial”, and to believe that love and marriage in animals are governed by much more sensual impulses than in man. This idea is quite wrong in the case of those animals in whose life love and marriage play a major part. Amongst those few birds which maintain a lasting conjugal state, and whose behaviour in this respect has been explored to the very last detail, the betrothal nearly always precedes the physical union by quite a long period of time. In those species which marry only for one brood, as for example most small song-birds, herons and many others, the engagement is necessarily of shorter duration. But nearly all those that marry for life become “engaged” long before they “wed”. The record for long engagements, in small birds, is held by the bearded tit, to which my friends Otto and Lilli Koenig dedicated years of observation and one of their most delightful books. These beings-I mean the tits and not the Koenigs-become engaged, strangely enough, in their juvenile plumage, before their first moult, at the age of two and a half months, that is to say about nine months before they are sexually mature and mate for the first time. To the connoisseur this is something quite remarkable. The unique display ceremonies, especially the courtship-actions of the male, are calculated to expose the wonderful details of his mature plumage, above all his black “mutton-chop” whiskers and the deep ebony of his lower tail coverts. The little fellow shows off a beard and unfolds tail feathers whose conspicuous colouring will not become evident until two months later. Of course he does not “know” what he looks like, and the innate movements are intended for the finished adult plumage only. The autumn betrothals of surface-feeding ducks are a different matter. The drakes are at this time as incapable of reproduction as the young bearded tits, but strut already in their full gala dress which does not change till after mating time in early spring.
Jackdaws, like wild geese, become betrothed in the spring following their birth, but neither species becomes sexually mature till twelve months later; thus the normal period of betrothal is exactly a year. The wooing of the male jackdaw is so far similar to that of the gander and the young human male in that none of these has at its disposal particular instruments of courtship: they cannot spread the splendour of a peacock’s tail, nor, like Shelley’s skylark, pour forth their “full heart in profuse strains of unpremeditated art”. The “eligible” jackdaw must make the most of himself without any of these accessories, and the way he does so is astonishingly human. Exactly as the greylag gander, so the young jackdaw “spreads himself” to denote his superfluous energy. All his movements are consciously strained, and his proudly reared head and neck are held in a permanent state of self-display. He provokes the other jackdaws continually if “she” is looking, and he purposely becomes embroiled in conflicts with otherwise deeply respected superiors.
Above all, he seeks to impress his loved one with the possession of a potential nesting cavity, from which he drives all other jackdaws, irrespective of their rank, at the same time giving utterance to the high, sharp “zick, zick, zick” of his nesting call. This calling-to-nest ceremony is, for the moment, purely symbolic. At this stage it is immaterial whether the cavity in question is really suitable for a nest. In contrast to that of the jackdaw the parallel ceremony in the house sparrow is to be taken seriously: the male house sparrow only thinks of marrying when he has found and fought for what he considers an adequate nest cavity, for which there is always a wild “scrum” amongst male sparrows. For the “Zick ceremony” of the jackdaws, any dark corner or small hole, too narrow to be crawled into, serves the purpose. The already-mentioned male jackdaw who used to stuff my ears with mealworms showed a preference for zicking on the edge of a very small mealworm pot. Our free-living jackdaws use, for the same purpose, the upper opening of our chimney-pots, although they rarely nest there, and their muffled “zick, zick” can be heard in spring-time from the various stoves in our living-rooms.
All these different forms of self-presentation are addressed by the courting male always to one special female. But how does she know that the whole act is being performed for her benefit? This is all explained by the “language of the eyes”, which Byron, in Don Juan, calls:
“The answer eloquent where the soul shines,
And darts in one quick glance a long reply.”
As he makes his proposals the male glances continually towards his love, but ceases his efforts immediately if she chances to fly away; this, however, she is not likely to do if she is interested in her admirer.
Remarkable and exceedingly comical is the difference in eloquence between the eye-play of the wooing male and that of the courted female: the male jackdaw casts glowing glances straight into his loved one’s eyes, while she apparently turns her eyes in all directions other than that of her ardent suitor. In reality, of course, she is watching him all the time, and her quick glances of a fraction of a second are quite long enough to make her realize that all his antics are calculated to inspire her admiration; long enough to let “him” know that “she” knows. If she is genuinely not interested, and will not look at him at all, then the young jackdaw male gives up his vain efforts as quickly as-well, any other young fellow. To her swain, now proudly advancing in all his glory, the young jackdaw lady finally gives her assent by squatting before him and quivering, in a typical way, with her wings and tail. These movements of both partners symbolize a ritual mating invitation, though they do not lead to actual union but are purely a greeting ceremony. Married jackdaw ladies greet their husbands in the same way, even outside the mating season. The purely sexual meaning attached to this ceremony in the genealogy of the species has been entirely lost and it now only serves to signify the affectionate submission of a wife to her husband. It corresponds in its meaning almost exactly with “symbolic inferiorism” in fishes. From the moment that the bride-to-be has submitted to her male, she becomes self-possessed and aggressive towards all the other members of the colony. For a female, the betrothal entails a high promotion in the colony, for being, on the average, smaller and weaker than the male, she stands much lower in rank than he as long as she is single.
The betrothed pair form a heart-felt mutual defence league, each of the partners supporting the other most loyally. This is essential, because they have to contend with the competition of older and higher-standing couples in the struggle to take and hold a nesting cavity. This militant love is fascinating to behold. Constantly in an attitude of maximum self-display, and hardly ever separated by more than a yard, the two make their way through life. They seem tremendously proud of each other, as they pace ponderously side by side, with their head feathers ruffled to emphasize their black velvet caps and light grey silken necks. And it is really touching to see how affectionate these two wild creatures are with each other. Every delicacy that the male finds is given to his bride, and she accepts it with the plaintive begging gestures and notes otherwise typical of baby birds. In fact, the love-whispers of the couple consist chiefly of infantile sounds, reserved by adult jackdaws for these occasions. Again, how strangely human! With us too, all forms of demonstrative affection have an undeniable childlike tendency-or have you never noticed that all the nicknames we invent, as terms of endearment for each other, are nearly always diminutives?
The male jackdaw’s habit of feeding his wife is a charming gesture which appeals directly to our human understanding, and the chief expression of tenderness shown by the female is no less attractive to our minds. It consists in her cleaning those parts of his head feathers which he cannot reach with his own bill. Friendly jackdaws, as also many other social birds and animals, often perform mutually the duty of “social grooming”, without any ulterior erotic motive. But I know of no other being which so throws its heart into the process as a lovesick jackdaw lady! For minutes on end -and that is a long time for such a quicksilvery creature- she preens her husband’s beautiful, long, silken neck feathers, and he, with sensuous expression and half-shut eyes, stretches his neck towards her. Not even in the proverbial doves or love-birds does the tenderness of married love find such charming expression as in these notorious corvines! And the most appealing part of their relationship is that their affection increases with the years instead of diminishing. Jackdaws are long-lived birds and become nearly as old as human beings. (Even small birds like warblers or canaries live almost two decades and are still capable of reproduction at the age of fifteen or sixteen years.) Now jackdaws, as described, become betrothed in their first year, and marry in their second, so their union lasts long, perhaps longer than that of human beings. But even after many years, the male still feeds his wife with the same solicitous care, and finds for her the same low tones of love, tremulous with inward emotion, that he whispered in his first spring of betrothal and of life. You may not believe it, but there are other animals in whom-though they may live in life-long marital union- the situation is different: in whom the glowing fires of the first season of love become extinguished by cool habit; with whom the thrilling enchantment of courtship’s phrases entirely disappears as time goes on: and in whose further mutual association all the activities of wedlock and family life are performed with the mechanical apathy common to other everyday practices.
Of the many jackdaw betrothals and marriages whose course I was able to follow, only one disintegrated, and that was during the period of betrothal. The cause of the trouble was a young jackdaw lady of unusually vivacious temperament, called Leftgreen, whose romance, with its happy end, was the diametrical opposite of the tragic love affair of the greylag goose Maidy, of whom I shall tell you in another book. In the early spring of 1928, which was the first spring in the life of my first “Fourteen”, the reigning despot, Gold-green, pledged his troth with Redgold, who was obviously the fairest of the eligible virgins: indeed, had I been a jackdaw I would have chosen her myself. The second jackdaw of the colony, Bluegold, had also made patent overtures to Redgold, but he soon relinquished them and became engaged to Rightred, a rather big and, for a female, strongly built jackdaw. This betrothal ran a slower and less thrilling course than that of Goldgreen and Redgold, and was obviously a more lukewarm affair than the “grand passion” of the latter couple.
Leftgreen was at this time-at the beginning of April- not even “boy-conscious”, for the awakening of sexual activity in year-old jackdaws varies considerably in the time of its commencement. It was not till the beginning of May that Leftgreen appeared on the scene, and her entry was as impulsive as it was sudden. As I have said before, she was small, and low in the order of rank; and, from a human point of view, she was much less lovely than Rightred, to say nothing of Redgold. But there was something about her… She fell in love with Bluegold, and her love was so much more ardent than that of Rightred that-to begin with the end, in anything but logical style-she finally outwitted her stronger and more beautiful rival.
The first sign which I received of the impending love drama was the enacting of the following scene. Bluegold sat peacefully on the upper edge of the open aviary door and allowed Rightred, who was sitting on his left side, to preen his neck feathers. Suddenly, unnoticed by both, Leftgreen also landed on the door and sat for a time about a yard away, casting on the lovers glances rife with tension. Then, slowly and carefully, she sidled, from the right, ever closer to Blue-gold, and with outstretched neck and, as a measure of caution, wings prepared for flight, she, too, began to caress his neck feathers. Bluegold did not notice that his toilet was being effected from both sides, having closed both his eyes in complete abandonment to the pleasures of the process. Rightred was also quite oblivious of her rival’s presence, since between her and Leftgreen was interposed the large fat form of her fiance, now made even bigger by his fully ruffled feathers. This tense situation prevailed for some minutes, until finally Bluegold happened to open his right eye, and when he saw the strange female at such close quarters he pecked at her with sudden vehemence. At the same moment Leftgreen was discovered by Rightred also, whose line of vision became suddenly cleared by the altered position of the angry male. With one bound, she leapt over her betrothed and threw herself with such fury upon her rival that I received the impression that, unlike me, Rightred was already well aware of the earnest intentions of little Left-green. The rightful bride seemed fully alive to the seriousness of the situation; never, before or since, have I seen one jackdaw pursue another with such venom. But she had no success. The smaller and sprightlier Leftgreen surpassed her in the art of flying, and when Rightred, after a long air hunt in pursuit of her detested rival, landed at the side of her betrothed, she was completely out of breath; the little Left-green, on the other hand, who arrived not a minute later, seemed quite collected. And that settled the matter! In her importunate courtship, Leftgreen was admirably tenacious rather than subtle: she pursued the couple day after day without the slightest pause, whether they walked or flew, but kept just far enough away to avoid unduly provoking them. But as soon as the pair nestled close together in homely comfort, Leftgreen approached nearer and watched patiently for the moment when Rightred should softly scratch the head of her lover.
Many drops wear out the stone. The attacks of Rightred lost gradually in intensity, Bluegold ceased to object to the bilateral attentions, and one day I noticed that things had reached the following pass. Bluegold was sitting still, letting Rightred tickle the back of his head. On the other side, Left-green proceeded to do the same thing. Then, for some reason, Rightred stopped scratching and flew away. The big male opened his eyes and beheld Leftgreen on his other side. But did he peck her? Did he drive her away? No! Pensively turning his head, he deliberately offered to Left-green the coveted part of the nape of his neck! Then his eyes closed again.
From now on, Leftgreen gained rapidly in his favour. A few days later I saw that he was feeding her, regularly and tenderly, though, to be sure, in the absence of Rightred: not that he was consciously doing this behind the back of his “rightful” bride-to believe this would be to overrate the mental capacity of the jackdaw. Had Rightred been present, she would undoubtedly have received the delicacy, but because she was not, the other obtained it. My friend A. F. J. Portieje observed similar behaviour in mute swans. An old, married swan male furiously expelled a strange female, who came close to the nest where his wife was sitting and made him proposals of love. But on the very same day he was seen to meet this new female, remote from his wife and his nest, on the other side of the lake, and to succumb to her temptations without further ado. Here, too, a human parallel can be found, but here again it is erroneous. In the precincts of his nest, the male swan is concerned primarily with the defence of his territory, and he sees in every strange member of his species, whether it be male or female, only the intruder. Away from his nest territory where all trespassers must be prosecuted, he is not thus preoccupied, and is, therefore, able to recognize the desirable female in the person of the newcomer.
The surer Leftgreen became of the male, the more impudent she became towards Rightred. No longer did she flee her rival, and there were sometimes duels between the two females. Strange was the behaviour of Bluegold in this dilemma. Whereas normally he had bravely supported his wife in any quarrels with other members of the colony, now he was obviously in conflict with himself. He certainly threatened Leftgreen, but never more took action against her. Indeed, I once saw him make slight threatening gestures towards Rightred, and his inhibitions and embarrassment in this situation were often quite apparent.
The end of this romance was sudden and dramatic. One fine day Bluegold had disappeared, and with him-Left-green ! I could not assume that these two mature and experienced birds had met with an accident at the same moment; doubtless they had flown away together. Conflicting emotions are certainly just as tormenting to animals as to human beings, and of this I will speak later; and I cannot exclude the possibility that it was these irreconcilable sentiments that impelled the male jackdaw to leave the colony.
I have never known an occurrence of this type in older nesting couples, and I do not think that such a thing ever happens. All the jackdaw nesting pairs that I was able to observe for any length of time remained true to each other to the day of their death. Nevertheless, widows and widowers remarry without demur, as soon as they find a suitable partner, though this is not so easy for old and high-caste females. Greylag geese never remarry, and this is a subject which I have treated in my book about these birds.
In their second year jackdaws become capable of reproduction. In reality, they probably are so in their second autumn, immediately after their first full moult in which not only their body plumage but also the large flight feathers of their wings and tail are renewed. After this moult, on fine autumn days, the birds are obviously in a mood for sexual activity, and are especially inclined to seek nesting cavities. The aforementioned “zick, zick” can be heard continuously from all sides. When the weather becomes cooler this post-moulting sexual mood fades out again, but remains latent, and on warm winter days little zick-zick concerts sometimes ring through the chimneys into the rooms below. In February and March the matter becomes serious and the “zick, zick” hardly ever ceases during the hours of daylight.
At this time another ceremony is often performed which is quite the most interesting in the whole social life of the jackdaws. In the last days of March when the zicking has reached its height, the concert swells, in some niche in the wall, to an unprecedented volume. At the same time it alters its timbre, becomes deeper and fuller and sounds, from now on, more like a “yip, yip, yip” emitted in an ever-increasing succession of rapid staccato notes which, towards the end of the strophe, reaches a pitch of frenzy. Simultaneously, excited jackdaws rush in from all sides towards this niche and, with ruffled feathers and their best threatening attitudes, join in the yipping concert.
And what does all this mean? It took me quite a time to find out: it represents neither more nor less than communal action against a social delinquent! In order fully to understand this collective reaction, which is purely instinctive, we must look further into it.
In general, a jackdaw zicking in its nesting cavity will not lightly be attacked, as the aggressor will inevitably be at a disadvantage. Now the jackdaw has two separate ways of threatening, as distinct in their form as in their meaning: should the quarrel concern exclusively a social rank dispute, the rivals threaten each other by drawing themselves up to their full height and flattening their feathers. This attitude implies the intention of flying upwards and onto the back of the adversary. It is the forerunner of that method of fighting, common also to cocks and many other birds, in which the partners fly upwards, locked in fight, each clawing and striking at his opponent, endeavouring to overcome him and to throw him over on his back. The second threatening attitude is exactly the opposite. The bird ducks, drawing low his head and neck, to form a curious “cat’s back”, emphasized by the ruffling of his back feathers. The tail is drawn sideways toward the opponent and spread into a fan. While in the first threatening attitude the bird tries to appear as tall as possible, in this, the second one, he makes himself as bulky as he can. The first attitude means, “If you don’t make room, I shall attack you flying”, while the second implies, “Here where I sit I will fight to the last, for I shall not cede one inch”! A bird of high rank which approaches a subordinate, with the intention of driving him from a particular place, generally retires if the latter assumes the second threatening attitude. Only if the aggressor himself sets store by this spot, for example with a view to a nesting-site, does he proceed to further action. In this case he also assumes the second attitude. And so the two squat for a long while, shoulder to shoulder, each watching the other with grim intensity. They hardly ever come to blows but, still squatting in the same place and keeping their distance, aim fast and furious but totally ineffective pecks at each other. The sharp expulsion of breath and the snapping of the beak is distinctly audible at each peck. The result of such quarrels is always a question of who can hold out the longest.
The whole zicking ceremony is bound up inseparably with the second attitude of threatening, the jackdaw being quite unable to utter either its “zick, zick” or its “yip, yip” in any other position. In the jackdaw, as in all animals which mark our territories, the boundary between the’ ‘possessions” of two rivals is determined by the fact that any individual will fight much more furiously when near its home, than when it is on foreign ground. Therefore a jackdaw zicking in its own rightful nesting cavity has from the start a very appreciable advantage over every intruder, and this superiority, as a rule, more than outweighs any difference in strength and rank that might exist between fellow-members of the colony.
However, owing to the keen competition for the possession of serviceable nest cavities, it sometimes happens that a very strong bird attacks a very much weaker one in its nesting cavity and assaults it unmercifully. In this eventuality, what I have called the “yip-reaction” comes into play. The zicking of the outraged householder increases at first tremendously and then gradually gives place to a yipping. If his wife is not already at hand to assist, she now comes rushing up with ruffled feathers, joins in the yipping and attacks the peace-breaker. Should the latter not retreat instantly the incredible happens: loudly yipping, all the jackdaws within earshot storm the threatened nest cavity and the original battle disappears in a solid mass of jackdaws, in an increasing paroxysm of rage, a crescendo, accelerando and fortissimo of general yipping. After thus forcefully discharging their excitement, the birds disperse soberly; only the nest-owners can still be heard quietly zicking in their once more peaceful home.
The congregation of a number of jackdaws is usually enough to terminate the fight, particularly since the original aggressor participates in the yipping! This might seem to an observer, who attributed to the bird human qualities, that the cunning invader wished to divert suspicion from himself by crying “Stop thief”. In reality, however, the aggressor, dragged willy-nilly into the yipping reaction, does not even know that he is the cause of the tumult. And so, yipping, he turns in all directions as though he, too, were seeking the culprit, and, strangely enough, he is doing so in all sincerity.
I have often seen cases, however, where the aggressor was very definitely recognized by the advancing members of the colony, and was thoroughly thrashed by them if he persisted in his attack. In 1928 the real despot of the jackdaw colony was a saucy magpie whom I had reared together with the jackdaws. The magpie far surpasses the jackdaw in fighting qualities and, unlike it, is a distinctly non-social bird and quite devoid of the finely adjusted social drives and inhibitions which make the jackdaw so appealing to us. So this feathered rascal, lacking any sense of propriety, soon became the same disturbing element in the jackdaw colony as the inveterate criminal in a civilized human society. Time and again this piebald bully forced his way into the nesting cavities of different jackdaw couples and incited an indignant yipping. Although the magpie had no organ for the yipping reaction of the jackdaws and pursued his object undaunted, he was nevertheless forcefully brought to his senses by the mass attack of the jackdaws, who taught him, by bitter experience, to leave their nests alone. Thus, contrary to my earnest fears, eggs and young came off unscathed.
It is primarily the old, strong, high-ranking males that play the most important role in the yipping and rattling reactions. In another way also they safeguard the welfare of the community. In the autumn of 1929 a huge flock of migrating jackdaws and rooks, all in all about two hundred, descended on the fields in the immediate neighbourhood of our house. And all my young jackdaws of that year and the previous one got themselves inextricably mixed up with these strangers. Only my few old birds stayed at home. I regarded this occurrence as an absolute catastrophe and visualized my work of two years flying away beyond recall. I knew only too well how strong an attraction a migrating flock can exert upon young jackdaws, who, intoxicated by the sight of a myriad ebony wings, seem compelled to fly with them; and, had it not been for Goldgreen and Bluegold, the results of my hard labour would have gone with the wind (or rather, against it, since jackdaws prefer to fly in that direction). These two old males, the only ones of their age in the colony, flew incessantly backwards and forwards between house and field, and there they did something so incredible that I should be inclined to doubt it myself as I write, had the same type of activity not frequently been witnessed and even experimentally proved by myself and my workers. Each of the two patriarchs sought, from out of the crowd, a single one of our own young birds and fetched it home in a most peculiar manner. They induced it to take wing by a very special manoeuvre which jackdaw parents also practise with their children when enticing them from some dangerous place. The parent bird flies, from behind, low over the back of the young one and, the moment he is immediately above him, he executes a quick sideways wobbling movement with his closely folded tail, which ceremony impels the sitting bird to “follow the leader” with a reflex-like certainty. This feat being achieved, the old males resumed their homeward flight, ever casting backward glances to see if their charges were still following. We have already seen how Jock also used this method in guiding her wards.
During the whole procedure, Goldgreen and Bluegold uttered continuously a significant call-note, clearly distinguishable from the usual short, light flight-call by the drawn-out length of its dark, muffled tone. While the ordinary flying-call sounds like a high “Kia, Kia”, this second note can be expressed by a “Kiaw, Kiaw”. I was conscious at once that I had already heard this cry, but only now was its meaning brought home to me.
The two male jackdaws worked with a feverish haste; well-trained sheepdogs, who separate and round up their own sheep from a large flock, could not have shown a keener efficiency. They worked without pause, well into the dusk, when jackdaws have normally long since sought their perches. Theirs was no easy task, for no sooner had they coaxed a contingent of young jackdaws into their home, than these immediately flew off to rejoin the flock on the meadow: for every ten birds that were laboriously recaptured, nine escaped again. But late in the evening, when the wandering tribe moved onward, I found with a deep sigh of relief that, of our many young jackdaws, only two were missing.
Impressed by this episode, I began to investigate more thoroughly the different meanings of “Kia” and “Kiaw”. They were soon clear to me: both calls denote “Fly with me!” But whereas the jackdaw calls “Kia” when it is in the mood for flying abroad, it cries “Kiaw” to express a homeward-bound intention. I had always noticed that migrating flocks of jackdaws cried differently, more shrilly than my birds, and I now know the reason why. Far from home, with all the ties of the “homing instinct” temporarily severed, the motivation for the “Kiaw” call is absent. Under these conditions, only the wander-call “Kia” is heard. In this connexion, it would be interesting to ascertain whether the “Kiaw” sound is ever heard in the spring in flocks migrating back to their breeding colonies. What I heard from my own jackdaw flock was invariably a mixture of both notes because, within the precincts of the colony, a certain homeward-bound tendency was never entirely lacking, even in winter.
Despite the verbal interpretation “Fly with me”, it must be stressed that these call-notes are purely indicative of the mood of the bird in question and are in no way a conscious command. But these completely unintentional expressions of individual feeling are of as highly infectious a nature as yawning in human beings. It is this mutual mood-infection which ensures that all the jackdaws finally act concertedly. Thus, far from being determined by the authority of an autocratic leader, the activities of flocks of birds, herds or packs of animals, and even schools of fishes, are decided by a process very similar to the democratic system of voting.
This is the reason why the behaviour of a flock of jackdaws under certain circumstances shows a regrettable lack of unison. This interaction of moods may sometimes continue for a surprisingly long period, thus emphasizing the birds’ utter inability to come to a decision: this would involve the aptitude to concentrate on one particular motive by consciously subjugating all other present impulses: but this faculty is an attribute only of man and, to a much lesser extent, some of the more highly intelligent mammals. It makes a human observer positively nervy to watch such a jackdaw flock torn hither and thither between “Kia” and “Kiaw” calls, for half-hours on end. There sits the flock, in the middle of a field, some miles away from home; it has relinquished its quest for food, so the birds will soon be flying home, “soon” meaning of course a jackdaw’s somewhat elastic idea of that conception of time. At last a few birds- usually old, strongly reactive ones-take off, emitting “Kiaw” cries and thereby provoking the whole flock to leave the ground with them; but no sooner are they in the air than it becomes evident that many members of the flock are still in “Kia” mood. In a babel of “Kia” and “Kiaw” cries, the flock circles and eventually lands again, this time on a field perhaps farther still from home. This is repeated a dozen times, then very gradually the “Kiaw” factor becomes preponderant, gains ascendancy and finally sweeps all before it with the voracity of an avalanche.
The “Kiaw” reaction certainly plays an overwhelmingly large role in maintaining the integrity of the colony. I have already related how, on one occasion, it preserved mine from ruin and, later on, it did so again in an entirely different manner. Some years after its establishment my jackdaw colony was struck by a catastrophe whose cause remains obscure to this day. In order to avoid the inevitable losses of winter migration, I kept the birds confined to the aviary from November to February and paid an assistant, who was said to be conscientious, to look after them, as I was living at this time in Vienna. One day all the birds had gone! The wire of the cage had a hole in it, possibly caused by the wind, two jackdaws were found dead and the rest had disappeared. Perhaps a marten had got in, but I never found out. Keepers of free-living animals become accustomed to all sorts of setbacks, but this loss was perhaps “the most unkindest cut of all” that my tireless efforts in animal-rearing ever received. But it brought some good withal, in the form of some observations which would otherwise never have been possible. This luck began with the sudden reappearance of one bird after the space of three days: it was Redgold, the ex-queen, the first jackdaw who had hatched and brought up her young in Altenberg.
This lone jackdaw rarely ventured forth but sat the livelong day on the weathercock-and sang! She sang almost without intermission! All song-birds, to which group the corvines also belong, tend to sing profusely when in solitude or robbed of the opportunity to pursue their normal activities, in other words when they are “bored”. For this reason, the bird kept in solitary confinement sings much more than the one which enjoys its freedom. All the energies which would otherwise be disseminated over a hundred and one different activities flow concurrently in the one channel of the song. In nature, also, where the song of most small singing birds serves to mark the boundaries of territorial rights and intimates an invitation to the female, those males who have found no mate sing louder and longer than their happily mated brothers. Because of the predominance of males, many must remain celibate, but this does not appear to depress them unduly. Contrary to the opinion of our societies for prevention of cruelty to animals, it is therefore no great act of cruelty to keep a nightingale or a goldfinch alone in captivity for the purpose of its song, and Blake’s adage:
“A Robin-redbreast in a cage
Puts all Heaven in a rage”
need not be taken too seriously. The male lapdog on one end of the lead and the frustrated spinster on the other are objects far more deserving of our pity. Speaking for myself, however, I must admit that the continuous song of singly kept birds gets on my nerves, with time. My male common redstart, who rarely sings, as he lives in a large cage with his wife, but who, as I write these lines, is performing his remarkable courtship dance in front of the lady of his heart, affords me much more pleasure than the most voluble of solitary singers. All the same, the singly kept male songbird does not suffer, nor is his song the expression of sorrow and desire, as sentimental people like to believe. If he is at all distressed his carolling ceases at once.
But the lonely jackdaw lady, Redgold, was genuinely sad, and I am not anthropomorphizing when I say that she suffered mentally. Mental suffering in animals is practically always dumb, but in this one case-I know of no other-her sorrow found vocal outlet, intelligible to man, or at least to one man who understood “Jackdawese”. The song of all jackdaws-for both sexes sing equally well-consists of an infinite variety of notes, both specific and mimicked, and this motley of sound is woven to a design which, though not beautiful, is a comfortable and homely singsong. In the jackdaw, the mimicking or so-called mocking of other sounds does not play a marked role and is not nearly so perfected as in the crow and the raven; nevertheless, singly kept jackdaws learn to imitate human words quite well. But a very curious speciality of their song is a phenomenon which one might interpret as self-mimicking. In the songs of the jackdaw each and all of the different cries peculiar to the species are constantly reiterated. All the call-notes with which we have already become acquainted are reproduced in the song, and that includes the “Kia” and “Kiaw” cries, “zicking” and “yipping” and even the sharp rattle normally used in defence of a comrade. In all other birds that I know, sounds with a “meaning” are not used in the song at all, or, at the most, they occur only singly. But the song of free-living jackdaws consists almost entirely of such sounds! And the unique part of it is that the singer accompanies the individual cries with the corresponding gestures. When rattling he bends forward and quivers with his wings, just as in a genuine rattling reaction; when “zicking” or “yipping” he assumes the appropriate threatening attitude. In other words he behaves exactly as a human being who becomes so engrossed in the recitation of a ballad that the individual passages awaken corresponding feelings and emotions and automatically evoke the appropriate gestures. To my human ear, these “song-sounds” are in no way distinguishable from those which are meant in earnest. How often have I rushed, in alarm, to the window, hearing a loud rattling and thinking a marauder had one of my birds in its clutches, only to find that a loudly reciting jackdaw had made a fool of me. But never have I seen a real jackdaw taken in, in that way. This is a constant source of wonderment to me, considering the blind, reflex-like nature of the reaction which follows on the rattling of a fellow-member of the species in cases of emergency. It is this significance of the individual sounds and still more the touching expressiveness of the accompanying gestures that make the jackdaw’s song so enchanting to one who understands its emotional movements and sounds. How delightful are these little black fellows, repeating with elation their ballads, in which are conjured up pictures of all the exciting experiences pertaining to the life of a jackdaw!
But the song of the lone jackdaw Redgold was really heart-rending. It was not how she sang, but what she sang. Her whole song was suffused with the emotion which obsessed her, with the sole desire of bringing back her lost ones by means of the “Kiaw” call, “Kiaw” and again “Kiaw” in all tones and cadences, from the gentlest piano to the most desperate fortissimo. Other sounds were scarcely audible in this song of woe. “Come back, oh, come back!” Only rarely did she interrupt her song to fly down to the meadows and comb the whole district in search of Greengold and the others. “Kiaw,” she called, this time in earnest, not in song- a subtle difference. As time went on, these outbursts of longing became fewer and she spent most of her time perched on the weathercock of our clock-tower, consoling herself with the subdued bars of her song. And here, mourning for her lost love, Greengold, with a veritable
“Green and yellow melancholy,
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.”
That is how Redgold saved the colony. For, though I am not given to over-sentimental pity of animals, I was compelled by her grief and her unceasing lament from the rooftop to raise another batch of young jackdaws that spring and to start the jackdaw colony again on our house in Allenberg. For her sake, I reared four young birds and, as soon as they could fly, I put them in the aviary with Redgold. But alas, in my hurry and in my preoccupation with other affairs, I overlooked the fact that there was another large hole in the wire of the cage, and before they had got accustomed to Redgold all the four young jackdaws escaped. Holding closely together and vainly seeking leadership amongst themselves, as I have already described, they circled higher and higher and finally landed away upon the hillside, far from the house and in the midst of a thick beech covert. There I could not approach them, and as the birds were not trained to respond to my call, I had little hope of ever seeing them again. Of course, Redgold could have recovered them with “Kiaw” calls. Old “consuls” of a colony take care of all younger members that are about to stray, but Redgold did not consider the four youngsters as colony-members, since they had been in her company for little more than half a day. Things certainly looked at their blackest, when, all at once, my despair gave place to a brilliant idea: I climbed into the loft and the next moment came crawling out again. Under my arm I bore the huge black-and-gold flag which had flown, to celebrate many birthdays of the late Emperor Francis Joseph I, from the top of my father’s house. And high up on the battlements of the roof, hard by the lightning conductor, I now frantically waved this political anachronism. What was my purpose? I was trying, with this “scarecrow”, to drive Redgold so high into the air that the youngsters in the copse would sight her and begin to call. Then, I hoped, the old bird would answer with a “Kiaw” reaction and so bring about the prodigals’ return. Redgold circled high, but still not high enough. I let out one Red Indian whoop after the other and waved Francis Joseph’s banner like a madman! In the village street, a crowd began to collect. I postponed the explanation of my doings till later, and waved and whooped further. Redgold soared a couple of yards higher, and then-a young jackdaw called from the hillside. I ceased my flag-flying, and, panting, looked above me where the old jackdaw was circling. And, by all the bird-headed gods of Egypt, the beat of her wings had taken on a new vigour, she was scaling higher and higher and now she set her course in the direction of the forest. “Kiaw,” she called, “Kiaw, Kiaw”-“Comeback, comeback!” I wound up the flag with alacrity, and was gone through the trap-door in an instant.
Ten minutes later all four truants were home, in company with Redgold. She was just as tired as I was. But from that day on, she tended those young birds most solicitously and never let them fly away again. These five birds were the nucleus from which a well-populated colony soon developed. At its head stood a female, Redgold. The great disparity in age between her and the other birds gave her even more “authority” than is customary with the despot of a colony. In her ability to hold the flock together, Redgold surpassed all other rulers that my settlement had previously known. Faithfully she herded the young birds, mothering them tenderly because she herself had no children left.
It would be romantic to close here the life-story of the jackdaw Redgold: the altruistic widow safeguarding the prosperity of the flock… that indeed would sound no harsh final chord. What really took place makes such an improbable happy ending that I scarcely dare to relate it. It was three years after the great jackdaw catastrophe, and a windy, sun-kissed morning in early spring. Such days are specially favourable for bird migration, and one flock of jackdaws and crows after the other was blowing across the skies. Suddenly a wingless torpedo-shaped projectile separated itself from a group and swooped with gathering speed into the depths below. Hard above our roof-top it stopped its fall with a light swinging movement and landed weightlessly on the weathercock. There sat a big and beautiful jackdaw with blue-black shining wings and a silky nape that gleamed almost white. And Redgold the queen, Redgold the despot surrendered without a thrust. The imperious virago became suddenly a shy, subdued maiden that shook her tail and quivered her wings with all the coyness of a jackdaw bride. A few hours after the arrival of the newcomer the two were as one mind with but a single thought, and behaved exactly like a long-wedded pair. It was interesting that this big male experienced little or no opposition from the other jackdaws. His recognition as despot by the erstwhile ruler seemed to stamp him as “Number One” in the eyes of all members of the colony. I have no irrefutable scientific proof that this gorgeous jackdaw male was Greengold, the lost spouse of Redgold the despot. The coloured celluloid rings were broken and gone; Redgold, too, had lost hers long ago. But the new arrival was undoubtedly a member of the former colony; this was proved by his lameness and the readiness with which he entered the interior of the loft. Wild jackdaws which had joined our colony always behaved quite differently. This bird was definitely one of the four or five eldest -the “consuls”-of the first colony. Still, I believe, and hope, that the old rake was no other than Greengold himself. The reunited pair have since hatched and reared many a further brood of hopeful young jackdaws. To-day there are more jackdaws than nesting-holes in Altenberg. In every wall niche, in every chimney is a nest.
Long before the last war, my father, in his autobiography, wrote of the Altenberg jackdaws: “Flocks of these birds fly, particularly towards evening, round the high gables, and communicate by means of penetrating cries. Sometimes I am convinced that I understand them: as perennial retainers, true to our home, we will fly round this, our eyrie, as long as one stone stands upon the other to afford us protection”.
The perennial retainers! It is perhaps this quality of the jackdaws which gives them a place in our affection. When in autumn, or even on mild winter days, they tune in their spring songs, when they play their daring game with the raging storm, they touch within me that same chord which sounds when I hear a wren singing on a clear frosty day or when I see an evergreen in snow. They suffuse me with that feeling of hope and fortitude for which the Christmas tree has become a symbol.
Jock has been gone a long time, the victim of an uncertain fate. Redgold was shot in her old age by a kind neighbour with an airgun. I found her dead in the garden. But the jackdaw colony in Altenberg still thrives. Jackdaws fly round our house, steering those courses which Jock was the first to discover, and using the same up-currents that Jock first exploited to gain height. They follow loyally all the traditions which reigned in the first colony, and which were transmitted to the present one through the medium of Red-gold.
How thankful I should be to fate, if I could find but one path which, generations after me, might be trodden by fellow-members of my species. And how infinitely grateful I should be, if, in my life’s work, I could find one small “up-current” which might lift some other scientist to a point from which he could see a little further than I do.