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Jackdaws choose food over friends, but not over family

A new study led by the University of Exeter has shed light on the intriguing social dynamics of jackdaws. 

The researchers discovered that jackdaws possess the strategic ability to prioritize food over friendships – but maintain an unyielding loyalty to family members.

Focus of the study

The team, which also included experts from the University of Bristol and the University of Konstanz, conducted a unique experiment that presented wild jackdaws with a challenge. 

The birds were given access to appetizing mealworms, but there was a catch. Their access to this treat depended on the company they kept. In order to feast, they had to be with specific companions.

What the researchers learned 

What the researchers observed was remarkable. The jackdaws rapidly changed friends to maximize their rewards. 

However, when it came to their offspring, siblings, and mating partners their allegiance never wavered, regardless of the potential mealworm reward.

Cornish Jackdaw Project 

The study was led by Dr. Michael Kings and Dr. Josh Arbon, under the supervision of Professor Alex Thornton, as part of the Cornish Jackdaw Project. This project aims to improve our understanding of how animals navigate and manage their social interconnections. 

“At the Cornish Jackdaw Project, we monitor hundreds of wild jackdaws, each of which is fitted with a tiny PIT tag – like the transponder chips used for pet cats and dogs – embedded in a leg ring,” said Professor Thornton.

Strategic ability 

“In this experiment we randomly assigned jackdaws to two groups – A or B – and programmed a pair of automated PIT tag-detecting feeders to provide delicious mealworms only if individuals from the same group (AA or BB) visited together.”

“The jackdaws turned out to be very strategic, quickly learning to hang out with members of their own group and ditching old ‘friends’ from the other group so they could get the best rewards. However, they made an exception when it came to their close relations.”

Study implications 

Dr. Kings noted that the results have important implications for our understanding of the evolution of intelligence as they show that being able to track and remember information about social partners can bring benefits.

“Our findings also help us to understand how societies emerge from individual decisions,” said Dr. Arbon. “The balance between strategically playing the field for short-term benefits and investing in valuable long-term partners ultimately shapes the structure of animal societies, including our own.”

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, provides new insights on how animals manage social relationships.

More about jackdaws 

Jackdaws are one of the smallest members of the crow family (Corvidae), and they are distributed across Europe and western Asia. They are easily identifiable by their silvery-blue eyes and the pale grey patch on the back of their head, which contrasts with the rest of their black plumage.


Jackdaws are known for their distinctive “jack-jack” call, which is where their name originates from.


While they can be found in various habitats, including woodlands, coastal cliffs, and urban settings, they particularly favor older buildings and church steeples for nesting.


Their diet is varied and includes invertebrates, seeds, fruit, and even young birds or eggs when available. Being opportunistic feeders, they also scavenge on carrion and pick up scraps in urban environments.

Social behavior 

Jackdaws are very social birds and are often seen in pairs or larger groups. They have a complex social structure, as highlighted in the study. 


Jackdaws mate for life, which means that once they form a pair bond, they usually stay together until one of the partners dies. They engage in mutual preening and other bonding behaviors.


Jackdaws often use cavities, such as holes in trees or chimneys, for nesting. They’ve also been known to occupy abandoned nests of other birds, particularly larger species like raptors.


Like other corvids, jackdaws are intelligent and display problem-solving abilities. They have been subjects of numerous studies examining avian cognition.


While many jackdaws are sedentary and stay in the same location year-round, some populations migrate southwards in the winter, especially those from the colder northern parts of their range.

Conservation status

Jackdaws are currently not at significant risk, and they have a stable population. They are adaptable birds and can thrive in varied environments, including human-dominated landscapes.

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