Category Archives: Birds

My story of a tame Jackdaw

 This is Jack as I first knew him

fed Jack with Chopsticks

We first met each other in early May.  Jack had tumbled from one of the dovecotes that line the eves of an old stone barn where a clattering of daws nest in the Spring.  He was tucked in a pocket of long grass yelling “Chyak Chyak” in a clear high pitched voice. It would have been only a matter of time before a passing cat would have had him for lunch.  These encounters with fledgeling daws happen every year, usually I fetch a ladder and place the young birds back into the nests from where they have tumbled, but on this occasion a colony of bees had arrived and made their home in the next door cote.  Rather than risk getting stung I took the half naked, semi feathered creature into the house and gave it to Mami to look after.  We fed him with tinned cat food from chop sticks and then put him on a bed of soft toilet tissue on the floor of a rusty old budgie cage.

In olden times they were called daws, just why they added the Jack prefix is unknown.  Sometimes Jack is added as a prefix to mean maleness, as in Jack Ass, but Jack also can mean small as in Jack Snipe.  Jackdaws are amongst the smallest members of the crow family, so its name small crow is very appropriate.  Another compelling theory is that their call Chyak Chyak sounds like Jack Jack.

Jack looked like ET with vivid blue eyes and acted like a clockwork toy.  He spent all day sleeping until something passing would make a noise and wake him up, then his head would stick up and he would start yelling Chyak Chyak with all his might until we had fed him more cat food. When he was finished eating he would reward us with a poo before collapsing back into a heap.

Corvids, as crows are known, are sometimes called “feathered Apes” because they are so intelligent.  I recommend you look at this remarkable video of a crow using his mind to solve a problem of how to use a piece of wire to pull a basket of food from the bottom of a deep glass jar.   As Jack grew he changed from behaving like a clockwork toy into a super intelligent, social and emotional being. 

In those first few days he grew very fast, and after a week he walking about the cage and trying to get out.  It was about this time that something more subtle emerged.  I would see him enjoying great long extended stretches of his wings and he would hiss if I annoyed him: the clockwork toy was developing spirit.

The clockwork toy was developing a Spirit

He obviously did not like the confinement of the budgie cage and so we bought a very expensive  very large dog cage. It did not work, a few days later he was clambering to escape from that that too and we had to give him a whole room where he could fly and play with visitors.

I have been very interested in the mind for some time.  When I am drawing people relaxing by the sea I have noticed that all the children share a fascination of stones….they collect stones and put them into piles and throw them in the sea……and the adults retain the same interest.   If Jackdaws went to the sea-side, and you will sometimes see daws there, they would spend all their days looking for objects to break. 

Jack would spend all day looking for objects to break

They break things they use their beaks and their hands

He would use his feet like hands

every new object is checked out for its break-ability.

His beak was sharp, pointed, shiny, vicious, delicate and super-sensitive to the outside world.  Jack explored and experienced the world through his beak.

Jack explored the world through his beak

With extreme precision he would hammer like a woodpecker on to the very tip of a chopstick, never missing his aim, until the wood splintered…and afterwards he knew his chopstick.  When I held his chopstick close to him he would snatch it away from my hands.  Sometimes a tug of war would develop.

Tug of War

and after he owned it again he would take it away in his beak

He was always inquisitive.  When I came into the room he picked my pockets, and if I had a hand behind my back he would peer round my waist to check that I was not hiding something from him.   New objects were always fully investigated

New objects were always investigated

    and shared

and shared

and if I left them in the room they would be broken by the time I returned.  Jack was not completely self-centred; sometimes he would help with the clearing up by collecting the broken pieces and putting them in a pile on the shelf.

Jack was also sensual.  I have often noticed how our cats enjoy new sheets on the bed and fresh water..  Jack was pretty picky too, his sensual experiences were highly developed; he would eat only the chunks of cat food and leave the jelly. One day when visiting Jack I had an apple in my hand, and Jack looked at what I was eating with envious eyes so I gave a piece.  He took it gently in his beak, and I could see his tongue caressing and licking the juice to find out if it was tasty, then he swallowed it.  30 seconds later he spat it out again.  Jack had decided he did not like apples!

He loved helping me when I changed the dirty newspaper for new and brought a bowl of fresh water everyday which was a “must have”.

Fresh water everyday was a must have

One day I discovered the reason why his bowl of water got so dirty, he was using it as a bath.

He wanted a bath

After I understood his need I brought him a larger bowl for his ablutions.  He understood it purpose at once and jumped right in, splashing about vigorously making everything around him wet.  I was standing some yards away with my back to the wall and I still got soaked.

He splashed about vigorously

He got out of his bath looking like a porcupine, and shook himself like a dog

he shook himself like a dog does

and preened his feathers.

and preened himself

After baths he looked he looked sleek and beautiful. 

Sleek and beautiful

Jack had an intelligent mind that needed to be engaged.  He liked my visits but really did not like it when I did not want to play. When I was drawing he would always take a look at my pencil box.  After a while he learnt what he was looking for; his first priority was to take out the rubbers and pieces of chalk because he knew they would break if he thumped them hard enough with his beak, and he also knew I would chase him to get them back. 

looking for pieces of rubber and chalk

His next priority were the plastic propelling pencils because he liked to pull out the rubbers and break the lead tips.

After emptying my pencil box he would arrive on top of my sketch board

on top of my sketch board

and would crawl, slip and tumble down the paper never taking his gaze away from the tip of my pencil

Jack would crawl, slip and tumble down the paper never taking his gaze away from the tip of my pencil

which he would launch himself at, breaking the fine lead tips with a single snip using the end of his beak with a delicate finesse.  Other times, perhaps when I was using a piece of graphite, he would grasp the stick with his beak and not let go.  His head would sway back and forth across the paper as I scribbled from side to side

His head would sway back and forth across the paper

sometimes his attacks were launched from my sleeve

Jack is watching the tip of the pencil and planning his moment to attack

After all his efforts to stop me drawing had failed he would start ripping the paper I was drawing on. Jack was a real attention seeker.

When he gained my attention he would sometimes calm down. He loved to sit on my shoulder and look out of the window with me, or cuddle up on my arm and make soft intimate sounds of affection.  On these occasions he used his beak with a lot of gentleness, perhaps nibbling and preening what is left of my hair.  He liked to push his beak to my mouth, like you see birds do sometimes, but if I smiled he would jab at my teeth because he thought them interesting shiny objects that needed to be tested for their breakability.

We found Jack in May.  The internet told us that if we released him too early he would get bullied by other birds, so we waited until August to release him.  On his last day of captivity Mami and I visited him in his room, he clambered all over Mami, as he always did

and stood on her head, as he always did

We took some hurried photos with an iphone, none were very good. This is a last memory of Mami with Jack

Instead of giving him his morning meal we opened the window wide and went downstairs to call him. We could see him flying around the room, sometimes he looked at us before retreating back inside.  I went upstairs and Jack came straight to my arm.  Together we looked out of the open window and at Mami below who was calling him to a bowl of food.  Jack looked and spread his wings and flew.  His flight was unsteady, he scooped in the air and went behind some trees.  We never saw him again.

What I have told you about our adventures with Jack is only a flavour of what happened. There is so much more that I never achieved to show in my drawing.  I think he got lost, I do not think he really wanted to leave.

..and that is the end of my story of a tame jackdaw. Everyday I go out and call him, but he has never shown himself.  At this time of year food is plentiful, he knows how to feed himself.  He used to catch flies in his room.  I think he is OK.

tame jackdaw
Sayonara, my dear friend!

Jenny Wren – Troglodytes troglodytes

There is something valiant about Jenny,  Kitty-me-wren or Our Lady’s Hen.  She is our most common breeding bird, a little bird of the earth that stalks us on our walks around the garden.  She never flies very high, we catch occasional glimpses of her skulking out of sight, poking about in holes and peering under things, disappearing and reappearing in amongst the tree roots and in the bramble patches. The male Wren will build up to eight nests to attract his bride to be, and he is amongst the first up in the morning to guard his territory with a loud clear voice that is amongst the most complex in the bird kingdom.  They are tiny, they are everywhere except wide open spaces, but we still find them  in scrub on remote barren islands.

We have forgotten that the wren was once the central object of worship not just in Britain but in every European nation.  In Ireland they have medieval manuscripts telling us how to read the speech of the wren.  The Welsh called them “Dryw”, which is also their word for druid and soothsayer, because this bird was sacred to the druids, it is thought they were kept in cages as oracles.    The English word Wren is derived from Drian, ie Draoi-en, “The Druid’s Bird” (from the proto-Celtic Drevo, cognate with the English “true”).

Her nobility was ambiguous and had many forms, she was a symbol of the earth that sometimes usurped the Eagle, the sun and rightful “the king of the birds”.  In the Mabinogion, an ancient Welsh masterpiece, a hero called Llew who slays wrens is slain himself.  His body is transformed into an Eagle with the wren on its back, just as one year runs into the next.  Thus we find this symbolism that the wren is the spirit of the the earth, the old year killed at the winter solstice and reborn again to soar like the Sun and the Eagle into the coming Spring.  In many Celtic communities  they had wren hunts at the Winter solstice and afterwards they paraded their little bodies on sticks around villages, exchanging their feathers for tokens. In parts of France they would dress her in the apparel of hawks,
The earliest stories of her trickery are 4000 years old and come from Sumeria, they tell of a wren who outwitted an elephant.   Aesop (600 BCE) is the earliest credited source of the a fable about a congress of birds which had gathered to choose their king, and to this end they had organised a competition to find the bird that could fly the highest.   Of course the Eagle soured higher than any other bird could manage, and so the confident Eagle looked down and said “look I am your King“.  Suddenly, the little wren, who had hidden himself in the feather’s of the Eagles crest, flew a few inches higher and chirped “Birds look up and behold your King“. Across Europe abundant variants and sequels of these stories survive, they are found in the Brothers Grimm and Shakespeare, stories of angry birds and blundering owls who Jenny always outwitted, but sometimes paying a price; she lost half her tail when the Eagle in his rage slammed her to the ground and was forever banned by the other birds from ever flying higher than the Hawthorn bush.

Her kingship is celebrated across Europe in her name; the latin word for wren is Regulus; Greek  Basiliskos (Little King); French Roilet (Little King) and Roi de froidure (Cold Weather King); Italian Reatino (Little King); Swedish Kungs Fogel (Kings Fowl); Danish Elle-Konge (Alder King); Dutch Konji (King) and Winter-koninkje (Little Winter King); German Zaunkonig (Hedge King) and Schneekonig (Snow King). To this day the Bretons have a proverb “The Eagle flees before the Wren“. 

Amongst the many names from around the British Isles are: Kitty-me-wren, Wran, Wrannock, Cutty, Cuddy, Scut, Scutty, Stumpy Dick, Cracket, Carckadee, Tit wren, Tom Thumb and St Mary’s Hen and Little Brown Nut (Shetlands)

Buy the Greeting Card –

Gifts and Greeting Cards for Bird Watchers

I have been working on making some ceramic mugs and greeting cards for bird watchers for Two Bad Mice. In this post I describe how the development process works.

My decision was to make a range that we see in the garden and feed on the bird table.  I started by making pencil  studies of birds.  This is a example of a page of pencil drawings of Great Tits.  I research the images using videos and photographs, but once I have made a few drawings I get a feeling for the bird and I can invent additional poses. 

The pencil drawings are then scanned and made into digital images

The drawings are then scanned and rearranged.   Modern software packages like Photoshop and Corel Painter have very sophisticated digital painting brushes that mimic the ways real brushes work.  The digital painting is done on a big flat screen with a digital pen that mimics the way we work with paint brushes.   There are hundreds of different brushes to choose from.  Each brush  has its own characteristics.  For instance the digital paint can be thick or watery and can be programmed to react as if it is being painted on to a textured paper. The colours can mix as if it is painting over wet paint.  It this case I have used a translucent yellows and bluey, greening greys that give a water-colour finish.  It only takes a few minute to paint the basic colours on all the images.  I now have a small library  of great tits in different poses

I want to make a design for a mug of the Great Tits in a alder tree.  I have a wrap around layout for a mug. 

The big advantage of painting digitally is that the paints are on different layers that can be switched on and off.  In this case I have a layer for the birds, a layer for the branches and a layer for the background.  I paint the branches using digital brushes and drop the images of  the birds on top of the branches .

I also add more layers of paint to give the birds more body.

and on another layer add some background blue that goes behind the branches and birds

I then print out the design and wrap it around mug to get a visual of how the item will look after it has been manufactured.

A big advantage of digital painting is that we can change layers.  For instance told me that for cards the images should be in a portrait format. I was able to drag the images around to fit a portrait format, move and resize the birds, change the background blue and add details.

Each of the bird cards include a summary on the back of the card. My final job was to research interesting information about the birds. This card was released in July 2019.

Here are some more images in the same series 

and this is a gallery of the full set of cards!

After the cards were released we used the images again to make ceramics. This task was made much easier because the work was digital and in layers. I removed the backgrounds, and changed the format again to fit on bowls and mugs.

gift for birdwatchers
Sparrow bowl and mug by Julian Williams

I hope to go on building on this rang so that we will have a range of gifts and cards for birdwatchers.

The Mute Swan Cynus olor

Mute Swan Cynus olor

Mute swans, the commonest swan native to Northern Europe, are easily identified by the black knob atop their orange beaks.  Swans pair for life and return to the same nest every year which they defend by hissing aggressively and chasing away intruders, otherwise except for the odd grunt and hoarse whistle, they are mute as the name suggests, .  I always imagined Swan was a homophone of watery words like Swim, Swiss and Splash, but I was wrong.  Swan is derived from an Old Saxon word swan or suan, (Danish svane, Dutch zwaan, German schwan, Icelandic svanr and Swedish svan) which has its root Indo-European *swen or *swon (to sound, to sing).   Thus “Mute Swan” encapsulates an image of the bird as mute singer.

Aesop, 6th century BCE, has two fables mentioning mute swans that would only sing under duress, especially after they had been threatened with death, and then they sang beautifully. Hence the phrase Swan Song meaning something we do at the end of our careers before we retire or die.  It seems that these ancient stories about reluctant (mute) singing swans are very old.  Looking on Google it seems to me that there is compelling evidence to suggest that ancient cultures mentally matched the necks of swans with the shape of their bronze age trumpets called lures (lurs).  

Danish Bronze-Age Lur; 13th-5th Century B.C.

These lurs appear on Scandinavian rock carving from 1000 BCE.  

   Norse rock carvings with swan necked lures  

The Celts, who appear a few hundred years later, used to carry lur like trumpets with animal heads into battle.

A Celtic lur with a swan neck and dragon’s face

Although Celtic lurs with swan heads have not been found there is one Celtic helmet that looks like a lur with swan’s head.

An Gallic Iron Age helmet in the shape of a swan

Is this the song of the Swan?

In Roman times, after the Celts had been defeated, Pliny seems quite angry about the stories of singing swans. In his Natural Historie he tells us  “some say swans sing a mournful song before they die, but this is false, judging from experience. Swans are cannibals,and eat one another’s flesh.

But Pliny’s words fell on deaf ears, 500 years later Isidore of Serville is still telling stories that swans “singing is sweet because it has a long, curving neck”.  Another 500 years later Bartholomaeus Angelicus is again mentioning that swans “hath a long neck diversely bent to make divers notes” and adding news about a fabulous country where “it is said that, in the countries that are called Hyperborean, the harpers harping before, the swans’ birds fly out of their nests and sing full merrily”

A millennium later the meme connecting swans, death and beauty (this time dancing for salvation rather than singing) was still being promoted by classical ballet; most famously in the solo piece “The Dying Swan” and again in the final act of Swan Lake where a swan maiden dies to release herself from the curse of the evil Von Rothbart. On a more optimistic note swans are symbols of flourishing beauty, most famously in the tale of the ugly duckling that unknowingly grows into a beautiful swan.  A particularly lovely idea can be found in Indian Mythology where swans are symbols of unworldly, untouchable beauty because when you put their feathers into water they remain dry and do not absorb water.  

Two Bad Mice have reproduced the image above as a greeting card

The Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula

The Bull Finch’s voluptuous pink breast and white rump make it one of the easiest birds to identify, but for many birdwatchers its call, a low mew, is often the first signs of bullfinches being present.

They feed voraciously  on the buds of fruit trees in orchards which why they are sometimes called Bud Finch, Plum Birds or Bud Pickers (Devon).  There is a theory that the name Bull Finch may be a shortening of Bullace Finch. (Bullace being the Tudor name for the wild plum trees that were cultivated in medieval orchards).

The more widely believed theory is that Bullfinch got its name from its large thick head and stocky form, as happened with bull dog and bull frog.  Some birdwatchers claim to have seen the birds head-butt other finches off the bird table.  Other folk names include Alpe, Nope, Pope and Monk.

The Gregarious House Sparrows Passer domesticus

My Grandfather used to call them Spadgers. The male can be recognised by his black bib and more vivid markings. Local British names include sparrow, sparr, sparrer, spadger, spadgick , spug, Spuggies, spur or Sprig (Scotland)  Spatzie or Spotsie (N America)  from the German Spatz which has a common etymological root with speed 

House Sparrows, as their name implies, are rarely seen far from human habitation.  It is thought that they are descendent from weaver finches that cohabited with stone age people on the fringes of the Mediterranean.  A clever adaptation because ever since they have co-evolved with us and followed our species around the world, today they are the most widely distributed birds on the planet.  In recent years the British population has declined dramatically, this might be because our houses have less nesting nooks and crannies and we are better at recycling our waste and protecting our grain on our farmsteads.

Such strong associations generates rich traditions and myths; the ancient Greeks associated sparrows with Aphrodite, Goddess of Love.  Cattalus Lesbia, a famous Roman poem, used a pet sparrow as a symbol of true love and spiritual connection, but during the medieval age this idea had degenerated into seeing sparrows as lustful, as is echoed by later writers such as Chaucer and Shakespeare.

In the bible Jesus says “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?”  These themes about the sparrows intrinsic value and chirpy good nature, their social pluckiness and speed are constantly resurrected, reinvented and transferred into new popular metaphors, like those surrounding the melting pot communities in the East End of London in the 1950s who identified themselves as “Cockney Sparrers”, and later inspired a punk band of that name.

Two Bad Mice have reproduced the image above as a greeting card, ceramic bowl and mug


Gold Finch
House Sparrow
Mute Swan
Blue Tit
Long Tailed Titmice 

The Blue Tit – Cyanistes caeruleus

Blue tits collect peanuts from the winter bird tables. In the spring they time their breeding cycle to coincide with the feast of green caterpillars found on young Oak leaves. You will see the parents hanging upside down to inspect the underside of leaves for small grubs, spiders and aphids on which they love to feed.  Later in the year they support themselves on berries and seeds and return to the bird tables.

The most common English name Blue Titmice is of 7th century Norse origin: ttr = small and Mase = bird which together translates as “small blue birds”.  Other common names include  Blue Cap, Blue Bonnet, Blue Ox-eye, Blue Spick (N Devon), Nun, Tree Babbler (Cornwall), Pinchem (Bedfordshire), Tinnock, Yaup, Bee Bird (Hampshire), Willow Biter, Billy Biter (Midlands), Pickcheese (Norfolk), Tom Tit, Hickmall, Heckymal and Titmal (West Country).

My image has been used for making a greeting card



“Charms” of Goldfinch will often be seen feeding in meadows on thistledown and teasel.

Their love of prickly plants has led to the birds being associated with Christ’s Passion.  The story goes that a goldfinch flew down to the cross and pulled a thorn from Christ’s brow leaving the bird’s faces splashed with the blood of Christ. 

Madonna and Goldfinch by Raffael 1505-6

In the renaissance goldfinch are often placed in pictures with the Madonna and child, as in the above image where the bird is in Christ’s hands forewarning us of the crucifixion.  The birds are also seen next to John the Baptist and Saint Jerome.  

Other common names are Saviour Birds, Thistle Tweakers and Thistle Finch. (There must be many other names for these very distinctive birds)

In the 19th century Goldfinches were were caged like canaries and renowned for their beauty and pretty song.    

My image of a goldfinch has been reproduced as a greeting card