Dear Readers, apologies for the late arrival of this piece – I got rather carried away with the wonders of Venice and lost track of the date. But here we are again, working through the year with Nature’s Calendar and its 72 micro-seasons, and I’m finding it very thought-provoking.
Jays are a very occasional visitor to my garden, and can usually only be seen if there aren’t many acorns about, and I’ve put out some peanuts. Like many trees, oaks will produce a huge abundance of acorns in one year, followed by not very much at all for a couple of years, and the birds and squirrels and other animals that rely on them have to adapt.
One way that jays try to even out their food supply is by gathering acorns and caching them, normally in ground with loose soil in open areas where mice and other rodents won’t find them. They have been shown to be very tactical about where and how they bury their stash: if they think they’re being watched by another jay they’ll find somewhere discreet to hide the acorns, and if they know that another jay can hear but not see them, they’ll avoid substrates like gravel that make a noise. Like all members of the crow family, these really are intelligent birds – some would argue that they have a ‘theory of mind’, which means that they can understand what another bird is thinking. This is a high bar for animals to leap over as far as behaviourists are concerned – only a select group of animals are accepted as being able to do this, which includes apes, macaques, parrots, ravens and, interestingly, scrub jays, a species closely related to ‘our’ jay.Of course, when the jays forget where they’ve planted the acorns, the seeds may germinate and turn into the next generation of oak trees, especially if they’ve been deposited away from the shade of their mother trees. Just like the nutcracker jays in Austria, they extend the range of forests and ‘plant’ trees in places that would otherwise remain treeless.
The best site for jays around where I live in East Finchley is definitely St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, where they can be heard screeching and arguing at this time of year, as they fight over the acorns. However, I was lucky enough to see a whole family of jays in East Finchley’s community orchard at Barnwood earlier this year. I get the feeling that there are a lot more of these birds about than we think, which gives an idea of how secretive they can be.
Another interesting study that’s mentioned by Kiera Chapman in Nature’s Calendar investigated the way in which male jays feed their female partners – this is an important part of the way that the couple bond. The pairs of jays were separated and the females put into three groups – one group was just fed on mealworms, one on wax moths, and a third group were fed a mixed diet. The males could observe what the females were being fed. When the pairs were reunited, the males presented the females in the first two groups with the kind of food that they hadn’t previously been eating (so if the female had had a boring old diet of mealworms she’d be offered wax moths, and vice versa). If the male hadn’t been able to see what the female was being fed, the offerings were much more random. Does this mean that the males thought that the females would be bored and wanted to offer them something novel? It’s an intriguing thought, and certainly plays into the argument that jays can intuit what another bird is thinking.
One joy of seeing a jay is how spectacularly brightly coloured it is compared to most crows (and indeed to most British birds). I love the pink-ish feathers (they’re a colour that my Mum would have called ‘ashes of roses’) and that bright turquoise flash on the wing. They are splendid birds, and they certainly brighten up my day. Have you seen many about this year? Let me know!