The shy bird of our woodlands


The shy bird of our woodlands

Despite their fear of humans, in their own company, they are very sociable birds and it is very rare to see one on its own.

Friday, 19 April 2013
10:00 AM GMT

If the kingfisher can be called the most colourful bird of our streams, then the jay can be called the most colourful of our woodlands. With its exotic colours of brilliant blue on its wing-coverts, white rump feathers and black and white crown feathers it is a sight to behold for those lucky enough to see it. For, the jay is a very shy bird and you are more likely to hear it than see it. There is no mistaking its cry which has been compared to that of the sound of a sheet being torn. While on a walk with a group near Cappagh Cross last year, we heard one shrieking in the woods, a sound which most of our group had never heard before, they were intrigued that such a beautiful bird would have such a harsh call. And yet, the jay has a wide vocabulary, in the springtime, when it becomes more sociable, it sometimes gives a low, crooning warble, but it is that distinctive warning call that it is best known for.

For a very good reason it was once known as the game-keepers friend, for no one can enter their territory without that alarm call ringing through the woods. Jays are notoriously shy birds and very rarely move far from their woodland cover, if they do venture out over open ground they can be seen to have an undulating flight like that of a magpie. The best chance of seeing one is in the early springtime as they seek mates, flitting through the woods on slowly-flapping wings.

Despite their fear of humans, in their own company, they are very sociable birds and it is very rare to see one on its own. Their fear of humans is well founded, for they were once hunted for their beautiful plumage, their feathers were used to adorn hats and the blue ones especially were sought after by fishermen for making flies. They are much credited for the spread of our native oak trees. In the autumn, they pluck the acorns and fly off to bury them in the ground. In the winter when food becomes scarce they return to their larder, but of course many are forgotten about and eventually spring up as young trees.

However, the jay shares many of the habits of its crow cousins and they will target the little nestlings of other birds to feed their own young, I once saw one in the Lords Wood with a tiny nestling gripped in its talons. Then, I saw the mother of the bird, a blackbird, bravely in pursuit of the jay, the blackbird was crying with its unmistakable alarm call, but to no avail. Jays will also feed on insects and mice and occasionally they will forage in the ground for worms.

In the spring both sexes help to make the nest of twigs and animal hair, normally in a densely covered tree or bush about ten feet from the ground. The eggs are laid in May, a clutch may contain up to six eggs. It is often said that the most colourful of birds lay the plainest eggs, but those of the jay are truly beautiful. They are tinged with green and have olive-brown freckles. Incubation takes place after about sixteen days, only by the female, but both parents take turns in feeding the nestlings. After about twenty one days the young ones will be encouraged to leave the nest. In his play, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’, Shakespeare says; What, is the jay more precious than the lark because his feathers are more beautiful.

The jay is known by a number of Irish names, two of the more descriptive are cabhog and screachog coille which translates as wood screecher, its Latin name, garrulus glandaris seems to refer to its harsh, noisy call.

The name jay is said to be derived from an old French word, gai, meaning gay on account of its colourful plumage. The famous English poet John Clare wrote of the Jay thus; In summer showers a shrieking noise is heard deep in the woods of some uncommon birdIt makes a loud and long continued noise and often stops the speed of men and boys.

The next time you are walking in one of our native woods, especially at this time of year, listen for that unmistakable screech, you may even be lucky to see the screecher, the jay.

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