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Notes from the sticks: Beware, jackdaws at work

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ONE clear sign that spring is on the way is the sight of jackdaws peering into chimneys, prospecting for nest sites.

Jackdaws (Corvus monedula) are smaller than their cousins rooks and crows, but in flight or without one of the others for comparison it can be hard to be certain what you are seeing. However they have three identifying characteristics – they have blue-white eyes (unusual in birds), a grey nape and a distinctive ‘chack’ call. All three are handily featured in this video.

Their nest-building technique is simple but effective – they drop sticks into a chimney and sooner or later one will jam part way down. I hoped to find a video of this but I had to make do with this still showing the type of stick that they use.

More and more sticks are dropped in until the structure is near the top. Then softer material is added to make a comfortable nest. I found this clip of a pony unwittingly donating hair. It doesn’t seem to mind.

Jackdaws pair for life (which can be up to 30 years, but usually a lot less) and will return year after year to the same nest, topping it up with fresh sticks and lining material.

So far so good, but the problem for householders is that their chimney is now filled with sticks, possibly 15 or 20ft of them, many of them damp and mouldy. If the chimney is not used, this can lead to mysterious damp patches on interior walls, but often it may not be noticed until new owners decide to open up old fireplaces and attempt to light a fire. At the very least the chimney will not draw properly and more than likely your room will fill with smoke.

The obvious remedy is to remove the nest and secure the chimney from future visitors. However it is important to note that jackdaws, like all birds, are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) and it is an offence to disturb a nest during construction and throughout the nesting season, until any chicks have fledged, with hefty fines for anyone who disturbs them. (For this reason I couldn’t find a picture of an active nest, because taking one would have involved disturbing the birds). On no account must you try to smoke the birds out as you will probably set fire to the chimney. You need to contact a professional chimney sweep (with those NVQ-registered being recognised as formally qualified) who has a General Licence under the Act. 

You can find one here, and this is how I made contact with Kevin Voice, known as the ‘Soot Sergeant’ in Montgomery, Powys, who let me use these great pictures showing just how much debris can come out of one chimney.

It is not just sticks that need to be removed – the jackdaws themselves quite often slip down the chimney and lodge there. Again the person you need is a chimney sweep, and here is Craig Forster of West Malling in Kent with two birds he rescued.

Capping the chimney must also be left to the professionals as chimneys are tricky things and you don’t want to fill your home with fumes. When I was a child my grandmother lived in Ambleside in the Lake District, and everyone’s chimneys were under constant siege from jackdaws. The pots used to be covered with wire netting to keep them off, but I can clearly remember seeing the jackdaws working away at the netting until they broke it or pulled it away. These days, Kevin tells me, you can get much better guards. For a fireplace in use you need one in stainless steel with 25mm x 25mm square gaps in the mesh. Anything else isn’t suitable and will either block up with soot or corrode from rain and the acidic compounds found in soot.

The puzzle to me is why jackdaws have taken to using chimneys, which according to Wikipedia have only been around domestically since about the 12th century. They are perfectly capable of using other cavities for nests, and it must take far fewer bird hours to build a standard nest than to find and drop hundreds of sticks down a chimney. Still, you have to admire their work ethic.

With thanks to Kevin Voice and Craig Forster.

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How wonderfully resilient plants are. Last week I mentioned in the comments section that some violas I have in a pot outside had wilted badly in the freezing temperatures and stiff easterly wind, so I had watered them. A reader said this was the worst thing to do in the cold, so I said I would report back and it turns out that I have got away with it. For some reason I did not take a picture of the plants when they looked flat and dead last weekend but here they are now, revving up nicely for spring.

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The mallards in our stream have been joined by a white drake paired with a standard coloured duck. It is not an albino but leucistic, which means its feathers are without pigment but its eyes, beak and feet are the usual colour. Last year we saw a white duck in the river with a dozen well-grown ducklings – a tremendous achievement – and at first I thought it must be the same individual, but this is definitely a drake, with the curled tail feathers and aggressive attitude. I took a picture but although they will come for corn they are not keen on being too close to people, so it’s pretty poor.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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