A reflection on jays

There’s one bird whose very heart is a beating contradiction. As I walk through the wood I can hear their dry-throated screams. The sound dodges between bare branches. Perhaps their call is them expressing anger at their cover being taken away. In Autumn, when the trees become bare, these birds are suddenly revealed. They’ve spent the rest of the year hiding in plain sight. But even the most avid birdwatcher barely sees them in the Spring and Summer months.

One flies to a nearby tree and lands a few metres from me. A second follows close behind: they often move in pairs like this. Beneath my feet the trees have mostly cast their colourful Autumn foliage to the floor. The ground has taken on the appearance of a giant Jackson Pollock canvas. But this pair of birds returns some colour to the bare branches.

One hops down to the floor, busying itself among the hummus. It ferrets beneath the shrivelling leaves, searching for food. These birds are keenly intelligent. They forage for food like squirrels and even store it. They know when a shortfall might be coming, and gather food to compensate for it in advance. This kind of planning in advance is known among some of the cleverest of creatures, including primates like orangutans. This jay is on the lookout for food, perhaps acorns – the first of up to 5000 it might find and then hide away. Denied the secrecy of their own presence, they remain faithful to the idea at least by secreting away their food for the Winter.

Overhead a flock of redwings and fieldfares chacks and trills as it flies over, having arrived from Scandinavia to spend the relatively warmer Winter here. And while the Sun has come out it has lost its Summer passion. On this October morning it still hasn’t burnt away all the frost that formed overnight.

In Spring jays’ breeding and rearing are all conducted under our noses in woods and parks up and down the country, but we never see this part of their lives. They skulk. Hidden amongst dense foliage. Very occasionally a bold one may venture out to a bird table. Or you might see one dart across a road, identified by its big white band at the base of its tail, if by nothing else.

In Autumn though, these birds come into their own. Jays are like magpies, slightly more compact and stockier, with shorter tails. They are in fact part of the crow family, but they look almost nothing like their darker cousins. While some of them have come to symbolise forboding and death the jay’s colourful plumage might augur glitz and decadence.

But, their beauty juxtaposes their modesty in behaviour. They reveal themselves in Autumn only out of necessity. They would, I sense, much rather remain hidden away. Strange for a bird so beautiful to want to hide its good looks. Their wings and tail are black and white, as is the crown of their head. They sport a fetching, hipster black moustache. In their pale heads are seated keen and piercing eyes. Their bodies are an ancient and dusty pinky-orange, like the sands of a distant land. But perhaps to top it off are their army-style bright blue epaulettes. To stumble upon a feather from this part of a jay is to find a true treasure to add to the naturalist’s shoebox trove. This kind of bling is unusual in our countryside. You could be forgiven for thinking they migrate here, particularly when they hide away for so much of the year.

The jay I’m watching flies back up to a branch, clutching an acorn in its beak. The pair of them depart, flying off between the trees. Retreating into the background. I wander on slowly through the wood, continuing to hear the distant screeches of the jays. Beckoned by the jays, my mind casts itself forward into the future. The glasses of Pimm’s of Summer are long behind me now. Instead I look forward to a warming glass of sloe gin when I return home, a deep pink that even a jay might envy.

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