In a Wiltshire Garden, squirrels and jackdaws fought for weeks over possession of a nest box. Neither could have predicted their dispute would have a twist ending.
A dispute over ownership of a nesting box has led to growing tensions between a pair of jackdaws and some squatting squirrels. Both species staked a claim over the modest abode – a large plywood box that photographer Nick Upton fixed to a beech tree in his Wiltshire garden in 2020. Upton had hoped that the box would encourage tawny owls to move in – but a pair of jackdaws adopted the box instead, and raised three chicks in it during the spring of 2021. The jackdaws returned to nest again in 2022 – only to find that some squatters had moved in.
IN A FLAP
“I noticed the jackdaws seemed very wary and jumpy, and then I saw why,” says Upton. “A grey squirrel pair had taken to sleeping in the box every night, while the jackdaws roosted in the treetops. When the birds returned to the box every morning, the squirrels would spring to the entrance and chase the jackdaws. But the birds would only fly a few feet away before launching a counterattack, dive bombing the intruders. Then, as soon as the squirrels emerged to feed, the jackdaws would chase them mercilessly, trying to peck them as they scampered up the tree trunk.”
But the tufty rodents weren’t about to be pushed around so easily by a pair of featherweights. Both squirrels and jackdaws have quite dominant personalities, which makes them persistent. By spending long hours in a hide 70 feet away, Upton saw that the squirrels would come back when the jackdaws weren’t around, and the conflict would start up again as soon as the birds returned: “It’s been quite comical to watch the jackdaws jumping up and down on the lid of the box and pecking at it to disturb the squirrels.”
After constantly antagonising each other for over a month, the quarrel reached boiling point, with the squirrels and jackdaws engaging in full-blown territorial combat. It has long been known that grey squirrels will snack on bird eggs, but Upton says he can’t find any records of nest competition between grey squirrels and jackdaws. One study in Wales showed that jackdaws can evict the smaller red squirrel from nest boxes. But there are also records of grey squirrels booting tawny owls out of their nest holes. In other words, when squirrels and birds clash over nesting space, the conflict can go either way.
BEAK, TOOTH & CLAW
At one point, it appeared as though the jackdaws had emerged at the top of the pecking order. Upton says the birds brought twigs and animal hair into the box, a tell-tale sign that nest-building has begun. However, the squirrels keep returning – and Upton says it was a close fight: “The stakes couldn’t have been higher. The jackdaw’s ability to lay and incubate eggs was entirely dependent on them booting out the competition!”
Just when it appeared as though the jackdaws had gained the upper wing, a tawny owl discovered the nest box. On one occasion, the owl spent time inside when a squirrel was in residence. Upton’s trailcam footage showed the squirrel emerging unscathed – a lucky escape, given that tawny owls are known to occasionally predate on squirrels. Before long, the owl moved in one night, and resisted efforts from both the jackdaws and squirrels to reclaim the nest box. With all this competition over nesting space, Upton plans to invest in additional bird boxes, which he says are needed now more than ever: “Storm damaged trees, and the drive to cut down old ones deemed to pose a health and safety risk, takes away potential homes for tree-nesting birds. Clashes over nesting space may be fiercer than ever right now, so putting up bird boxes is a great way to help out jackdaws, owls, kestrels, and more.”