Dear Readers, today I was in Barnwood, our local community orchard here in East Finchley. I am doing a couple of sessions on pollinators for Barnwood’s ‘Silver Birches’ group next week, so I went to have a look round to see what was out and about. As we were walking around this magical place, with its combination of mature trees, fruit bushes, wildflowers and hidden shady spots we slowly became aware that all the small birds in the area were alarm-calling. The robins were ‘chinking’, which always sounds to me like a group of tiny elven miners hitting a silvery anvil with their hammers. The wrens were alarmed too. And then we saw this bird. Although it wasn’t a very clear view, it looked very much like a newly-emerged fledgling jay. And once it got together with its three siblings, the racket made the identification clear.
My friend L tells me that there was a magpie nest very close to where the young jays were, and wondered, quite sensibly in my view, if the jays had taken it over. There is such competition for nest spaces, and members of the crow family are notorious for stealing one another’s nests – I remember watching a gang of magpies chasing a well-established pair of crows away from their nest in a square in Islington. In a fight between a jay and a magpie I’d put my money on the magpie usually, but jays can be very feisty birds. At any rate, these little jays were mainly eating my friend L’s cherries, or at least the ones that the squirrels hadn’t already eaten.
An average jay clutch is apparently 3-6 eggs, so to have four healthy, living young is a testament to the efforts of the parents, who will continue to keep an eye out for their offspring for the next 6 to 8 weeks. Like most crows, jays are omnivorous, feeding on nuts and fruit (of which there is plenty in Barnwood), invertebrates (including many pest species), and young birds and eggs, hence the alarm of the robins. In years when oaks and beech produce lots of nuts the birds will cache them underground for later, a habit which means that oaks and beech seedlings often pop up some distance from their original homes when the jays forget where they buried them, or (more likely) are no longer around to dig them up. And so, although jays, like magpies and other crows, have a bad reputation, they are overall beneficial in a habitat, depositing acorns away from their mother trees so that they can grow in areas that are not already overshadowed by mature trees.
I always think of jays as the dandies of the bird world, with their pink plumage and iridescent turquoise and white wing feathers. I hope that these youngsters can complete this, the most dangerous period of their lives, without too much damage to the little birds that they share the habitat with.