Thursday, 4 February 2016

The Keeper’s Nemesis

I have just completed a life study of a dead Jay, I know, that sounds macabre, but it’s a subject we can all relate to, life & death. As a young lad growing up exploring the countryside at every available opportunity, I was always fascinated by anything I found dead on my travels. Those creatures ranged from shrews to dead birds, or black & orange Sexton beetles feeding on carcases that the keeper had strung-up on his gibbet! Just like a criminal investigator it would provide me with the chance to analyse the scene - most of the time very quickly and instinctively for clues as to why it had died...which is all exciting stuff as a young lad. You never really get the opportunity to admire those fine details of an animal or bird until its up-close and personal. Yes, I have seen the Jay a 1000 times with its slow rowing wing beat as it passes from one tree to the next, never straying too far from cover, or that distinctive harsh raking call, but to admire its beautiful plumage in your hands is something else. Personally, I think they are by far the most beautiful corvid family member, with an array of bold colours that somehow seem to blend into their surrounding environment. The Jay has a black moustache and white throat, and a speckled crown that can be raised like a crest when excited. Its underbelly and flanks are painted with subtle salmon pink and cinnamon hues, whilst a white rump and (almost) black tail finish off with bold blue, black and white barred wing coverts that make for a really stunning looking bird.
Like all other members of the corvid family, it is very intelligent too. They are great mimics and I have heard them on many occasions perfectly copy Buzzard, Crow and even Goshawk calls. They have a habit of hiding acorns in the fall just like a squirrel, the term is ‘caching or hoarding’ which stems from the French word ‘cache’ which is ‘hidden or hide’. The key difference with the Jay is it possesses a more accurate memory, which helps when retrieving the acorns later in the winter period; unlike the squirrel, which seems only to locate a percentage of its treasure!

You do hear Jays calling to one another as they skulk from cover to cover, but rarely do they sit out in the open for long periods like the Crow or Magpie. The latter will happily walk an open field for long lengths of time looking for all manner of food items. I think because of the Jays secretive nature, its general habits go unnoticed by the public. Everyone knows what a Crow or Magpie looks like, but the habits of the Jay make it more inconspicuous. The first time I found one of the blue-barred feathers, I stuffed it into my pocked and rushed home to show ‘Dad’ this exotic parrot feather I had found! As a youngster this first encounter left me feeling perplexed as so few British Bird species have blue feathers at all. These natural little jewels have been highly prized for fly tying, and many a trout angler would have something in their fly-box that would contain the magic blue feather of the Jay. It was also common practice to see one worn in the headband of a countryman’s trilby.


During early part of the 19th century the Jay (like many of the corvid family) was culled by Game Keepers countrywide, not just for game bird egg and chick predation, but they will happily consume all manner of other birds offspring with gusto. I have watched individual birds locate the nest site by watching the adult bird give the game away very easily when to-ing and fro-ing to the nest with food for their chicks. When a victim bird is incubating her clutch, the male, depending on the species, will sometimes sit close by quickly changing over at dawn and dusk to relieve the female of her duties. This is the time I have watched Jays with my binoculars waiting very patiently to pinpoint the site, only to swoop in and raid the nest like a perfect high street robbery, all in what seems like a split second moment. If unsuccessful they will return daily until they have fulfilled their mission. I know some will say “well, that's nature” and to some degree that is the case, but with the current scarcity of many top apex raptors/carnivores, this has created a significant rise in mid-level predators/opportunists. Like other members of the corvid family, this is one of the reasons they are so abundant in the UK. They have adapted well to life in towns and gardens, living in close proximity to humans; their success has allowed numbers to steadily rise. Keepers were well aware of the Jays behaviour, but would also remove raptors at the same time, so maybe it was counterproductive to some degree.


I hope this gives you a little insight into the Jays behaviour, and if you look around any local park or large garden, or deciduous woodland or old hedgerow, you will be sure to observe one with patience. Listen out for that screeching alarm call as they communicate with each other, not too dissimilar to a pack of arboreal mobsters.


Love or hate, it’s a beautiful bird that has been part of the British landscape for millennia and last autumns acorn planting sessions will mean the Jay efforts will help germinate more oak trees than all the UK human population put together, now there’s a thought.


Drawing is life sized and in Graphite pencil.


For Sale £200


My next post will be all about a predator of real power, agility and that was traditionally regarded as the top woodland hunter and kept the Jay numbers in balance.


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