I have chosen the jay as my bird of the month for March.
Jays are woodland birds and we are lucky to live on the edge of a wood. Our neighbours have lovely mature gardens with lots of trees which brings the jays into the gardens. We’ve seen one on our feeders several times. Every time it is there I hold my breath and try not to move. The slightest movement scares it away. It mostly comes in the early morning and we frighten it off with curtains opening and human nonsense resuming. Most often we spot the jays as flying white rumps, making a dash for tree-cover. But when you get a good clear view of them – surprisingly large and surprisingly colourful – they are just glorious. They are pink with a shocking blue shoulder patch. Along with goldfinches and kingfishers, they don’t look like they should be UK residents. They are too colourful, too iridescent, too kingly.
The Latin name for the jay is garrulus glandarius. ‘Garrulus’ meaning noisy or chatty and ‘glandarius’ meaning ‘of acorns’. There are no jays without acorns (and much fewer oaks without jays). Acorns are the primary food source for a jay. One bird can hide between 4,500 and 11,00 acorns. They store them for up to 10 months at a time. There is usually only one acorn in each hiding place. This means that the birds have to use foresight, planning and an incredible memory map to manage their stashes. It is a technique called scatter-hoarding. Jays are members of the corvid family. They are incredibly intelligent and display complex social behaviours. For example, they seem to be able to identify potential thieves and will chose to hide their acorns behind opaque barriers when they perceive that they are being watched. They are capable of deception, of following another bird’s gaze, and of anticipating actions.
The jay’s proficient acorn stashing makes them excellent dispersal agents for the oak. Oak trees have selected for large, nutritious acorns for maximum appeal for the jays. Oaks are a keystone species and jays are ecosystem engineers.
There was a jay in the garden again this morning. I moved a muscle and it flew away. Maybe I chose the jay for my bird this month because I feel like I’ve been holding my breath all month waiting for something bad to happen. I’d been holding my breath and containing so much dread in my body. And then the bad thing happened anyway, despite all my efforts, and now I feel like I can breathe again. And I think we have all been holding our breaths waiting for the pandemic to leave us to get on with our lives again. I’ve been seeing the jays and holding my breath and being amazed by them. They, however, aren’t holding their breaths. They are just getting on with things. I’ve been struck by that over and over again in the past year. As our freedoms were restricted by lockdowns, nature continued on regardless and the seasons came and went. The jays have been about their work hiding acorns and finding them again. Oaks have grown leaves, lost their leaves, dropped their acorns, and begun the process of new life. My bad thing happened, my heart is filled with sorrow, but nature keeps on going regardless.