Pecking Order – a film & a text

Lights on lights off.

Credit to Martin Creed – his work made an empty room into a place to inhabit and be aware of one’s own presence in the world.

My thinking around lights on and lights off has not come from an indoor lightbulb moment, but rather a streetlight one. And its relationship with sunrise and sunset.

My short film Pecking Order is a sunrise moment, when the birds announce their arrival and territorial scraps breakout as they shout and posture. Their concerns with presence are not about individuals, they are tribal, about occupation and dominance. And the volume of voices.

The only singular presence is me, with my iphone in hand.

A few days ago I went out to stalk the birds at dusk. As I filmed a street light came on behind me, making me very aware that I was present in a liminal moment of time. Significant for human safety on the street and an indicator of nest-time for the birds.

For 15 winters I have delighted in the jackdaw gatherings. I don’t use an alarm clock, I just leave the window open a little. This year there are more than ever before and I am leaving this house soon. So I relish every early morning call. I even get out of my cosy bed to see them now.

Today I went out at 7am today into a lowlight and mist, I could feel it gently landing on my face as I went quietly down the street to the riverside. I stood watching huge rafts of branches and twigs being carried upriver, appearing from nowhere to my right and very slowly passing by and disappearing again into the fog. Mesmerising. 

As I walked towards home my heart lifted as a cloud of jackdaws flew above me. I stood still to watch them and they began to gather in the tall trees next to the river. Behind me, a street light switched off.

I filmed the bird’s arrival, clusters settled onto branches, silhouetted against the sunrise, which wasn’t quite making it through the low fog. They chattered away happily, the noise like children at a busy school assembly. Then a loud “caw! caw!” penetrated the air. The jackdaws noise stopped immediately. The birds took off as one, the sound of their wings deafening as  the trees emptied rapidly. Only seconds later, as I resumed my walk home, did the crows begin to come down and meet in the trees. Louder and bigger they reminded me of the importance of pecking orders. And how they so often seem unfair.


I read recently that jackdaws mate for life, and like most birds who follow this custom become engaged early in life, long before sexual maturity. 

“First the young males of a new brood struggle among themselves to decide their individual status, and then pairing with females begins. The jackdaw female promptly upon pairing assumes the same social position of her male. His rights and restraints become her rights and restraints.

Should a female not secure a mate, then she remains the lowest ranked member of the flock in all social things. She is last to the food and last to the shelter. She is pecked by the lowliest, and snubbed by the least. Nor are there any lesser jackdaws on whom she can vent her frustration. As Lorenz related, it was one of these lowliest females that gave him much insight into jackdaw social behaviour. When a strong male returned to the flock, absent during the time of dominance struggles and male-female pairings, he quickly became the number one dominant male. He was forced to choose one of two unmated females for his mate. Instantly his new mate rocketed up the jackdaw social ladder and was able to peck others as much as she wanted, and she did. It took her a year to settle down. According to Lorenz the most significant factor of social behaviour was the immediate and intuitive grasp of the new hierarchy by each and every jackdaw. From the hour of her ascendancy, every jackdaw by oldest instinct knew his new place, and hers. She was “number one”.

Published by carolyn black

I'm an artist and also commission contemporary art in unusual locations. As a producer, I fundraise, curate, project manage and deliver projects. I'm also a writer and film-maker.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: