Just over a week ago I stopped and turned to admire the gentle song of a goldfinch. I searched the tree from which the sound came in vain, seeing only a jay. Then I noticed its beak move: there was no finch! The sweet murmuring, puttering song came from a jay. Tiring of finch, the jay began to click, and then accelerated a series of clicks together into a machine-like reeling not unlike a bicycle speeding up. It noticed me, or at least I like to think so, and looked in my direction, head cocked. It continued to burble away contentedly as its blue wing bars blazed sapphire in the afternoon sun.
Most corvids, jays in particular, have a vast vocal range and are very capable mimics, so I should never be surprised to hear a completely new jay call. Indeed it wasn’t even the first time that week, for the previous morning I’d stumbled on one in the Wilderness making a noise reminiscent of a peacock. They’re famously good at the tawny owl ‘ke-wick’ call, such that daytime heard-only records of tawnies can only be accepted for hooting males.
Early this week I passed a party of four jays together, busy at their more traditional raucous screeching. One seemed to be finding its way into a dense patch of rhododendron in which I suspect a song thrush to be nesting. A reminder of corvids’ dark side, perhaps, though the jay would retort it is only wise to take advantage of such a tasty packet of ready-wrapped protein.
It might also do well to point out all those acorns usefully moved around, advancing the frontier of the oak woods. In the autumn, jays – their numbers boosted by migrants from the continent – are especially visible, fluttering airily like giant butterflies from tree to tree. They’re so clearly industrious whilst I’m usually watching them as a form of window-gazing daydream. Trading off egg filching and forestry, a jay’s ecological contribution is, to my mind, positive – but that’s to suggest that nature has a correct balance or can have a moral code applied to it in the first place. Nonsense on both counts.
So, I was going to write a piece about how jays are Britain’s Bird of Paradise, quietly pleased with the originality of that thought. Almost the same day, via a reference in Mark Cocker’s Claxton, I discovered that W.H. Hudson beat me to that thought by a century or so! No matter – it’s still a concept worth dwelling on.
A bird of paradise: not in the literal sense of course, i.e. the family Paradisaeidae, but as a creature of exotic looks, curious habits and with a sense of the otherworldly about it. Think of paradise, or heaven if you like, not as a mystical fairyland that exists somewhere beyond the clouds (or the Tropic of Cancer), but as a hidden realm nestled within and outwith mundane reality. I believe all birds have the power to transport us there – all can in effect be ‘Birds of Paradise’ – but few can be as gifted in that respect as jays*.
*The blue jay of eastern North America is about as raucous, vibrant and visually stunning as our familiar Eurasian Jay, and is fond of spreading beech mast about. Siberian, Steller’s and Gray jays are pretty special too, by all accounts. In which case I’d like to think the above piece works pretty well for jays everywhere, not just in an English woodland or garden.