Bird of the Month October 2023: Eurasian Jay

I love autumn. The colours, fungi, architectural seed heads, returning wildfowl and golden light all combine to make this a special time of year. Another reason I love it, though, is that it is the best time of year to see our most brightly coloured corvid, the jay. Usually a shy woodland bird, in autumn jays are much more visible. This is because during autumn they search far and wide for the best place to hide their winter stash of acorns. They are also increasingly moving into urban areas, too. So, make a point of looking out for this beautiful member of the crow family this October.

Pretty In Pink

Although structurally similar, their colouring means that jays look quite different from any of the other members of the crow family found in the UK. Carrion crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws and choughs are all black, although they do have varying degrees of iridescence if seen in good light. Magpies are black and white, again with that beautiful iridescent quality. Hooded crows are black and grey. Jays, though, are predominantly a soft pinkish brown colour. Combined with an electric blue wing panel, this makes them by far the most colourful UK corvid. A black tail, white rump, black moustache and pale crown streaked with black complete the look. Size-wise, they are about the same size as jackdaws.

This jay has considerately perched near a magpie for comparison

This beautiful colouring, though, doesn’t make them any easier to see. Often described as shy woodland birds, a flash of that white rump as they fly away is often the only view you get before they are lost in the trees. Hearing them is another matter, however. Despite belonging to the songbird suborder of the larger passerines order, jays have a far from melodious voice. In fact, their harsh, shriek-like call is often the first thing alerting you to their presence. They are apparently also quite good mimics. They can pull off quite convincing impressions of other birds including buzzards and tawny owls.

Jay feather
A feather from the electric blue wing panel

Town and Country Life

Until recently, jays would have been considered exclusively rural birds in the UK. Their shyness and preference for dense woodland meant that they were once a relatively difficult bird to see. In the last few decades, however, they have been increasingly moving into towns and cities. This is especially true of those places with lots of trees, such as Bristol. As a frequent visitor to the city, I have got used to seeing them in even quite busy streets in the leafier parts of town. It isn’t completely understood why jays are making this switch, but it is probably largely a result of habitat loss. This adaptability is a classic crow family trait. It explains how most of our corvids manage to be so successful. This is despite the challenges, such as persecution and habitat loss, they face.

Jays are in increasingly common sight in our leafier towns and cities

In terms of range, jays can be found across most of the UK except the north of Scotland. Although they prefer broadleaf woodland, they will use conifers as well. Further afield, a number of subspecies inhabit a band across Eurasia and into south-east Asia. Jays are an irruptive species. This means that if food is short in their home area, they will sometimes migrate suddenly and in large groups to look for it elsewhere. In poor acorn years on the Continent, for example, hundreds of birds will travel to the UK in search of food. The jay’s average lifespan is about 4 years, although the oldest recorded UK bird was over 16 years old.

Like all corvids, jays are highly intelligent birds

Food for Thought

One of the most remarkable things about jays, and the reason they are more visible in autumn, is their habit of caching food, particularly acorns. Although they will eat a variety of foods, including seeds, insects, eggs, chicks and small mammals, acorns are a particular favourite. At this time of year, jays will spend a lot of time hiding them. This provides them with a store of food over the winter and early spring. As intelligent birds with good spatial awareness, jays are good at remembering where lots of these are. Inevitably, though, many aren’t recovered. As a result, a single jay can spread over 1,000 acorns each year.

Jays revisit their acorn caches throughout winter and early spring

Jays are therefore central to oak tree distribution. They often choose fairly open, scrubby areas to cache their acorns so that they are easier to find again. This helps any unfound acorns grow as they aren’t crowded out from access to light by other trees. Jays also travel quite large distances to hide food, meaning oaks can spread far from the parent tree. In fact, scientists believe that jays were largely responsible for the spread of oaks north after the end of the last Ice Age. And they are now recognised as helpful passive rewilding tools. A study from a couple of years ago found that more than half the trees in two woodlands that grew from abandoned fields in a project in England were planted by jays. This has the potential to save conservationists time and money. If we let jays do the tree-planting near oak woods, we can concentrate on planting trees elsewhere.

Jays love acorns

Chattering Acorn Gatherer

The jay’s scientific name, Garrulus glandarius, roughly translates as chattering acorn gatherer, a truly appropriate moniker. And now we know just how much that acorn gathering has helped shape our woodlands and oak distribution today. This beautiful member of the corvid family is more often seen than heard. But October is the perfect time to look out for it stashing its acorn food in a park or wood near you.

Jays are much easier to see in autumn than the rest of the year

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