When I was 10 I acquired a pet Jackdaw.
Well really I suppose it acquired me. I’d been playing on the top of the Prom in Maldon in the early Summertime. The Promenade in our town was once an amazing place. It had a huge lake which you could actually swim in! Of course that’s long since gone, inconceivable isn’t it, children swimming in a huge pool, unsupervised. But then, my generation had such wild, untamed yet still innocent childhoods, and navigated all the serious fun things with no casualties(cept Tin Tin!).
I was walking towards the gate near the top pavilion, which is now used as changing rooms for footy, when I became aware of this rather large grey/black bird, making a really odd noise, which sounded like “Jack! Jack!”
To be honest I was probably a bit scared, it was a big beastie, with a large beak and claws, and white eyes.
It seemed to be following me and to want my attention. After a few minutes of trying to figure out what my feathered friend wanted I ran home and told my Pa, and he asked me to show him the bird.
When we got back to the Prom and Alfie saw the bird, he told me it was a Jackdaw. It was very tame and Pa was able to pick it up without any problems. He decided we’d take it home so it wouldn’t be attacked by a cat or some such.
We had a big wooden shed at the bottom of our garden in Fitch’s crescent, Dad said it would roost there, which it did, and we gave it a big bowl of water and a bowl of milk with bread in it. The Jackdaw made its self at home, scoffed some of the bread and milk, and settled for the evening.
I couldn’t believe a wild bird had taken a shine to me! It was my first and only real pet! Well, except the Newts, Frogs, Moths and Elvers which I kept in tanks and cages in the garden. Of course the Newts and Frogs would always escape, ably assisted by Pa I fear. And I’d watch beautiful Moths hatch from their Pupae, and sometimes lay eggs which produced wonderful looking Caterpillars, which I also loved. Sadly the Elvers demised overnight and Pa advised me they could only survive in running water so they were a one off.
The following morning when I opened the shed door the Jackdaw flew out and perched on my shoulder! And then my head!
Fortunately I lived and died in an old US army fatigues hat at the time, a la Sargent Fury, so his claws didn’t scratch my head! It seemed the bird wanted to be with me.
Alfie became convinced the bird was someones pet and thought it was only a matter of time before it was claimed, as it was so tame. But nobody came forward and Jack as I’d named him/her became my constant companion that Summer.
At that time all us kids had trolleys. They were essentially fruit crates on a T frame, with pram wheels on the front and back, and a rope attached to the front wheels for steering. Like a poor kids Go Kart, except Alfie being Mr Smart, my machine was a clean machine. My box(on which one sat)had a proper hinged lid with foam rubber glued to it for maximum comfort. Alot of kids had them, I suppose before we could afford Bicycles we had trolleys, and then as we got older we got off our trolleys, and onto our Rayleigh Choppers. Ahem.
I decorated my trolley box with cartoon pictures of Spiderman and the Hulk, who I thought were the coolest Marvel characters. I’d cut them out from the comics I bought at the time. I had Smash delivered every week(another great concept in the 1960’s, paper boys who delivered your daily paper and your comics if you were lucky)but I loved Wham, along with Pow, Fantastic and Terrific. Halcyon days for British comics, with added Marvel loveliness! Smash also featured Grimly Fiendish, a character that inspired the Damned song. And I loved the Swots and the Blots, a more anarchic version of the Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle characters in Whizz for Atoms and How to be Top.
Sadly Pa told Ma that the 4 foot pile of comics I had by the side of my bed was a fire hazard(bloody Firemen!) and I came home one day to find my priceless beloved collection gone! Probably to the Rag and Bone man, but that’s another story………..
Everywhere I went on my trusty trolley Jack was with me, usually perched on the back of the box. He didn’t fly a great deal, and was mostly happy perched on me or the box. I can’t recall or imagine what the other kids thought of him, but I thought it was totally cool, a big wild bird as my friend and pet.
Dad also said that Jackdaws could mimic human speech, so we spoke to him all the time, prompting him with various phrases, alas to no avail.
Then one day, towards the end of the Summer, I opened the shed door as I did every morning and Jack flew away. Without so much as a bye-your-leave!
I was broken hearted, my constant friend for a month, my special pet, had left me……….
Looking back to those days the story seems quite incredible, tho’ there was a time when it was not out of the ordinary to keep Jackdaws as pets, tho’ usually in a cage. They have enjoyed notoriety as Witch’s familiars, and the famous Witch Sybil Leek had a pet Jackdaw called Mr Hotfoot Jackson. Amazingly she became friends with Aleister Crowley at the age of 9. She said they often talked about Witchcraft and Magickal words. And as a result of her psychic abilities numbered HG Wells and Lawrence of Arabia amongst her friends. Oddly enough my Father’s brother John was a good friend of Lawrence’s whilst they were in the Army together.
Jackdaws are very clever and are comparable to Primates in intelligence apparently. They store food underground, and Corvids(the Crow genus) have contributed to much of the natural forest in the UK.
In myth they herald both good and bad omen. Some say they forsee the future and the approach of death. In Macbeth, the eponymous thane registers the fall of dusk with the words: “Light thickens, and the crow makes wing to th’ rocky wood.”
It was named in Latin by Linnaeus as “the little money bird”, probably after its habit of stealing bright objects such as coins. The smallest of the crows, the jackdaw is bigger than a blackbird but smaller than a carrion crow and is distinguished by a grey nape (the back of its neck)
The ancient Greeks accounted for the crow’s black feathers with a tale of infidelity. Ischys, the son of Elatus and Hippea, had fallen in love with Coronis, who was carrying Apollo’s child. When a passing crow – who was then, like all crows, white-feathered – told Apollo of Coronis’ infidelity, he was so angered that he turned the crow’s feathers black, before killing Ischys. I loved Greek and Norse mythology as a child, I remember a Puffin book about Greek heroes was my bedside reading in 1967.
In Norse mythology the god Odin keeps two ravens, Huginn and Muninn, who represent Thought and Memory. Odin sends his ravens around the world at daybreak, to bring him news. In Irish and Welsh myth, the Raven plays the role of prophet, and in the shamanistic cultures of the North-west American Indians, the raven helps to create the world.
There’s also other myths surrounding the Jackdaw which relate to me in sadder times. When I was a young lad at school I thought every one was brighter than me, that I was a “Daw”, the old English word for simpleton. Of course now we know the Jackdaw is one of the most intelligent birds on the planet…….
And then just like now I talked too much, my teachers writing on my reports that I was far too talkative, my head bursting with thoughts and ideas. Another ancient Greek and Roman adage runs, “The swans will sing when the jackdaws are silent,” meaning that educated or wise people will speak after the foolish become quiet.
And for all the women that have told me how vain I am, ancient Greek authors tell how a jackdaw, being a social creature, “may be caught with a dish of oil which it falls into while looking at its own reflection”!
But on the positive side, Jackdaws are highly social birds, they pair for life, and have strong male/female bonding.
They are the only know species to share their food, and an individual initiates the sharing, rather than the flock stealing the food. They are notorious for nesting in church steeples, so they’re obviously spiritually inclined……..
Well, it was a wonderful experience for me as a young lad, having a wild bird as my close companion. Perhaps it’s the Wombwell blood…………..?