One of the confiding park jays
The Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) is a wonderful creature. Compared to its brazen, monochrome brethren, the jay is a coy but flamboyantly-dressed beast, shy and fleeting – known from a snatched glance of azure coverts over black-and-white, breast-stroking through an autumn sky, a flash of salmon in a maze of branches, or a startling shriek from the canopy. Occasionally, though, the jay is more confiding, and will forage in full view, hopping through the trees while it keeps a liquid jet eye fixed on you, ready to bolt at the slightest threat. Last Saturday, I was treated not just to one but a pair of jays flitting through the trees of a local park, immediately next to the path. Autumn, that wonderful provisioner of avian treats, yields one’s best chances of fully appreciating this glorious technicolour corvine – it is at this time of year that the birds set about tireless procurement of sylvan bounty, particularly acorns. They seem to collect them non-stop; on a recent trip to Richmond Park I observed no less than nine jay fly-overs, the birds’ beaks propped open by oak-sprung delicacies, in the space of ninety minutes. Of course, they may well have been the same few birds flying back and forth, but if so, what a testament to the single-minded determination of their caching!
In the past month I have been lucky enough to see more than my fair share of these birds. My regular trips to Epsom Common almost invariably yield at least one in the woods or on the Common itself. But I have also seen them flying close by my window as they carry their acorns, and, on an occasion of utmost excitement, early one morning seen a particularly handsome specimen caching a nut in the edge of the lawn, barley six feet from the kitchen window. How I wished I had my camera – but one of the greatest pleasures of birding is that of simple observation of another species going about its business, a window onto a world seen through avian eyes, often better unmediated by a lens. Last week, though, I had my camera, and though they are by no means spectacular, the photos I did take ae the first of these creatures with which I am pleased – a lot better than the usual blurred or noisy in-flight speck.
A noisy speck, alas one of my better flying jay photos
The flying jay, unless one has an especially capable long lens or is extremely lucky, is best appreciated with binoculars or the naked eye. Its flight is often described as ‘butterfly-like’, though to my mind this does not do the bird justice. The description, I suspect, owes its existence to the jay’s colourful plumage, broad, rounded wings, and slow, undulating flightpath. However, it does not flutter, but rather almost swims through the air with fluid but purposeful strokes. Jays tend to fly relatively low, particularly between perches, and this often affords sumptuous, if fleeting, views of the blue, black, and white of their wings gliding across their buff-pink flanks.
A calling jay
Often, though, the jay is heard, not seen. The first auditory encounter with one can be rather disconcerting, for what the jay possesses in sartorial splendour and cognitive elegance it entirely lacks in vocal aesthetics. Whilst walking around the local park, I am frequently alerted to the presence of one of the resident pair by an unearthly screech of such tortured timbre that in the first instance I was compelled to wade well into the undergrowth to investigate what I presumed was an act of predation by a cat or sparrowhawk. I found nothing – for the jay, despite its colour, is a master of concealment. When not shrieking, the birds can also be heard making softer but no less abrasive calls, best approximated as those of a cat in a state of mild gastronomic discomfort.
But such ominous vocalisations have a tender aspect. This morning, my encounter with the park pair was limited to hearing, but it revealed that the couple (which I presume they are, as pairs actively defend territories) were communicating with one another, maintaining contact via an exchange of soft rasps and gurgles. The male jay procures food for his mate, and in doing so appears to recognise his partner’s particular culinary desire based on what she has previously eaten (Ostojic, Shaw, Cheke, & Clayton, 2013).
Jays, like their corvine brethren, are birds of sublime intellect, and in ascribing desire to one another demonstrate complex social intelligence. It is their expertise in caching, though, that brings out a more Machiavellian side. A study of Spanish jays indicated that they will cache acorns anywhere between three and five hundred and fifty metres from their arboreal source – but they strongly prefer the open ground of forest tracks and recently-abandoned fields to areas of greater botanic encroachment, where their carefully hidden prizes are liable to theft by pilfering rodents (Pons & Pauses, 2007). In the presence of potential conspecific cache-stealers, jays will preferentially cache at sites obscured from the view of others (Legg & Clayton, 2014), and appear aware of the auditory perception of their fellows, choosing to cache in quiet substrates when in earshot, but not sight, of another jay (Shaw & Clayton, 2013). Potential pilferers also vocalise less when observing others caching (ibid.). Moreover, dominant birds readily approach the caches of subordinates, often when they are still caching, with a view to comestible thievery, but subordinates with similarly underhand motivations bide their time and keep their distance from dominant birds before making any such attempts (Shaw & Clayton, 2012). Not what one might have in mind as ‘bird-brained.’
So there is little not to admire about the wonderful Eurasian jay – smartly dressed, casual but graceful in movement, and a deft social genius. Truly one of our most characterful woodland birds, and one of the great outdoor pleasures of the autumn.
Legg, E. W., & Clayton, N. S. (2014). Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) conceal caches from onlookers. Animal Cognition, 17(5), 1223–1226. doi:10.1007/s10071-014-0743-2
Ostojic, L., Shaw, R. C., Cheke, L. G., & Clayton, N. S. (2013). Evidence suggesting that desire-state attribution may govern food sharing in Eurasian jays. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(10), 4123–4128. doi:10.1073/pnas.1209926110
Pons, J., & Pauses, J. G. (2007). Acorn Dispersal Estimated by Radio-Tracking. Oecologia, 153(4), 903–911.
Shaw, R. C., & Clayton, N. S. (2012). Eurasian jays, Garrulus glandarius, flexibly switch caching and pilfering tactics in response to social context. Animal Behaviour, 84(5), 1191–1200. doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2012.08.023
Shaw, R. C., & Clayton, N. S. (2013). Careful cachers and prying pilferers: Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) limit auditory information available to competitors. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 280(1752), 1–7.