The Frontal Cortex

Heartbroken Birds

Via bookslut comes a heartbreaking excerpt from Roger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees:

[Konrad] Lorenz observed that jackdaws form lifelong attachments, as rooks seem to do, and that there is a distinct, well-understood pecking order within the tribe to which all the members adhere without question. Lorenz gradually learnt the Jackdaw vocabulary: ‘Zick, Zick’ is uttered by the courting male to mean ‘Let’s nest together’ and, once in possession of an actual mate and nest, ‘Keep out.’ Any act of social delinquency is immediately censured by the other tribe members with a variation of this call, expressed by Lorenz as ‘Yip, Yip.’ Most interesting of all is Lorenz’s discovery of the subtle distinction between ‘Kia’ and ‘Kiaw.’ The first is the cry uttered in flight by the dominant jackdaws to urge the whole flock outward to new feeding grounds. The second is to urge them home. Thus, ‘Kiaw’ plays a vital role in maintaining the integrity of the flock when one meets another.

Most birds seem to keep their song quite separate from their language. The staccato alarm cry of a wren or blackbird is quite distinct from its sweet song. Jackdaws, however, incorporate their words into their songs to create, as Lorenz puts it, something more like a ballad, in which they can re-create past adventures or directly express emotions. Not only this, but the singer accompanies the different cries with the corresponding gestures, quivering or threatening like the lustiest performer passionately enacting a song. In a way, the jackdaw is mimicking itself, as a solitary jackdaw kept in a cage will come to mimic human speech, but it may also, Lorenz thinks, be expressing emotion. When a marten broke into the roosting aviary at Altenberg and killed all but one of his jackdaw flock, the lone survivor sat all day on the weathervane and sang. The dominant theme of her song, repeated over and over, was ‘Kiaw,’ ‘Come back, oh, come back.’ It was a song of heartbreak.

That story, with its haunting image of an abandoned jackdaw, just killed me.


  1. #1 Leisureguy
    March 13, 2008

    Incredibly moving…

  2. #2 bioephemera
    March 13, 2008

    That actually almost made me cry.

  3. #3 mattbucher
    March 13, 2008

    FYI, your book was name-checked today on Ask Metafilter:

  4. #4 Bee
    March 13, 2008

    Okay, I got tears.

    Meantime, I’m watching the happier Common Mergansers courting and fishing on the lake we live on. They stop here on their way further North to their nesting grounds as soon as a few lakes are ice free. Two or three males will follow a female’s every move. They are so worried about losing sight of her that when she dives to hunt, they stick their heads upside down in the water to keep track of her. It’s very silly looking.

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