Just below our house is a stand of ancient oak trees. How ancient I have no idea, but the presence of certain plants in the ground cover (particularly now I have cleared back much of the invasive Rhododendrons) indicates that the woods have been there for many hundreds, prossibly thousands of years. The grounding effect of large trees on our fickle human existance is one that is well documented, and I have something of a love affair with these oaks.
I am perhaps not alone, because they are also home to a number of animals, notably red squirrels, tree creepers, woodpeckers and, most noticable of all, a large colony of jackdaws. Or perhaps I should call them a ‘band’ or a ‘train’ to use their collective noun.
Even though they are there all year, for some reason, these beautiful, fiercely intelligent birds have become symbols of winter for me, and therefore, creatures of advent.
These jackdaws are there all the time, but most notably in the winter, where they are everpresent, almost unnoticed in their ubiquiosity as they flap the sky on apparently pointless journeys from branch to branch, squabbling with each other or an occasional gull or buzzard.
Sometimes the croaking noise they make reaches a distant peak, as it did when the sparrowhawk lingered to close to their untidy stick-nests in spring, but for the most part, the rasp and clatter of their vocalisation is part of the backdrop of living. Because Jackdaws love buildings (in the past often blocking chimneys with their) often they will rattle over the roof tiles – a disturbance until we became aclimatised.
I put out some food once and set up a camera trap to try to capture images of a local pine marten that I knew from glimpses and traces had been scouting out our chickens. all I did was to feed the jackdaws.
Unsurprisingly, our jackdaws have been featured in some of our art work, including this piece that Michaela made featuring an old poem about the burdens of winter;
Jackdaws are often featured in our stories and our folklore, creatures onto which we project meaning in our attempt to make sense of the world. To some they have been holy, perhaps because they often make their homes in the high church steeples. To others they are devil birds, associated with chaos and war.
Other stories come to us from greek mythology;
The story of Princess Arne of the island of Siphnos describes a beautiful young princess who is ruined by her own greed. In this story, Arne is offered a bribe by the legendary King Minos of Crete to betray the people of her island. Unable to resist the bribe, Arne relinquishes the island to Minos. Immediately, Minos and the army of Crete conquer Siphnos. Seeing her actions and disgusted by her avaricious betrayal, the gods decide to punish Arne. The punishment chosen is to turn her into a Jackdaw. In this form, Arne is forevermore condemned to chase after gold; her greed is translated into a Jackdaw’s fascination with shiny objects.
Once more, we do disservice to creatures of the natural world by attributing to them the character traits that are ours, but it seems to me that this bird of winter – this bird of advent – might be a useful reminder of the tautology of this dark season, in which we celebrate the mystery of the incarnation using such exterior excess. Like the jackdaw, we have no need for shiny things, but we chase them anyway.