This species is the least crow-like of all the British Corvids; sporting a ridiculously colourful suit of feathers made up largely of a soft orange-tinted pink coat. Large dabs of black and white give the bird a bold appearance – then as a final, beautiful flourish the Jay flashes proudly his electric-blue chequered wing patch. Altogether the Jay is one of Britain’s more unusual looking birds, it rarely fails to catch the eye of any passing human and even in flight it is distinctive; the silhouette of a Jay passing from one oak tree to another with its slow, bouncy, almost butterfly-like way of flapping is unmistakable. Whenever a non-birder asks a birder what the odd-looking bird in their garden is (usually accompanied with an indecipherable description) it is a bit of a joke among us birders to reply ‘probably a Jay’, simply because it almost always is – to a member of the public who has never noticed this bird before it understandably does look quite fantastic.
When reading about the Jay it becomes ever more apparent that there are many things about this garish member of the crow family which make it stand out from its cousins. The majority of British birds have accumulated many differing local names from across the country, especially if they have a distinctive appearance – take the Long-tailed Tit for instance which was once called ‘Bumbarrel’, ‘Poke-pudding’, ‘Long-tom’ and ‘Creak-mouse’. Yet the Jay is quite simply just – Jay – it has no other common names in Britain. It is also strongly associated with woodlands, oak woods especially, indeed it has only relatively recently expanded its range into suburban areas. The bird’s broad, rounded wings are an adaptation to a life of flying through dense canopies; so is its far-carrying call (the extremely loud screech which sounds like a cat being strangled while its claws scratch a blackboard) which penetrates clearly through muffling vegetation. Although it is officially an omnivore – as it will consume invertebrates, fruits, nuts and eggs – the Jay is really the most herbivorous of all crows seeing as the vast majority of its diet consists of acorns. Its remarkable Latin name Garrulus glandarius translates as ‘Noisy acorn-eater’, pointing out its harsh call and favourite food; interestingly there are only two other species in the genus Garrulus.
As most people familiar with this species will know, the Jay is shy and retiring; particularly in spring and summer when it is raising young and the leaves are thick upon the branches – then it can easily be weeks between sightings. In autumn though Jays become more active as the oaks become laden with acorns; they bury them in the ground or stash them in hollow trees so that they have a store of food to last them the winter and into the spring. At the moment it is not uncommon to see a Jay fly overhead with an acorn in its beak and an obviously swollen crop in which it has collected another six – they are not stupid birds and realise that they need to gather as many as possible now as it will be a whole year before the oaks produce again.
Although they may sometimes be difficult to see and wary of humans, Jays are still quite active and rambunctious; they eagerly scold and harass birds of prey such as buzzards or owls – even though these birds are of little threat to them. At certain times of year such as in early spring they can be seen in groups of three or four, chasing each other through the trees and calling in their grating tones – perhaps part of courting, or territorial defence or just youngsters playing.
These colourful and interesting crows are certainly a welcome addition to our British fauna, no other bird in all Europe looks like the Jay and a sighting of one on a gloomy winters day is enough to cheer anyone up – ‘unique’ is a word most appropriate for this bird.