Reprint of an article that appeared in the Summer 2009 Edition of Common Ground.
A few summers ago, Mr Cassidy and I were walking through the Common when we caught a glimpse of the most amazingly coloured bird which we thought must have somehow escaped from a tropical country and ended up in Tunbridge Wells. Turns out that this bird was the Jay, beyond doubt the handsomest member of the Crow family, and very possibly the handsomest bird in the UK.
We spent many, many months seeking another view of this fantastic looking bird, but to no avail – he was proving to be an elusive little blighter. Every walk would end with me moaning about the absence of the elusive Jay. I don’t know whether it’s down to our increasingly well developed “bird eyes” or he’s becoming more widespread and less shy, but you’ll seldom go for a walk in the Common these days without spotting him flashing his bold white rump at you from the treetops. One thing for sure, though, no matter how many times I see him, the sight of a Jay always fills me with a frisson of excitement, and makes me feel like I’ve had a good, satisfying walk.
There’s no mistaking a Jay. You will see the bright flash of azure in his wings, a much-coveted feather amongst fly fishers. We ladies have mercifully stopped wearing Jay feathers, possibly after the Duchess of Edinburgh caused a ruckus for sporting a Jay feather muff in the 1880’s. He’s a lovely greyish-pinky colour with black and white markings on his back which he may have borrowed from his cousin the magpie. The term “Jay” has historically been used to describe a flashy appearance or lady of loose morals. Nobody on our members’ list has “Jay” has a surname, so I can mention that this may suggest some dodgy ancestry!
He may be a handsome chap but his call is so horrible, he makes a crow’s squawk sound like Pavarotti in comparison. If you hear a bird making the most awful, blood curdling shrieking racket, there’s a very good chance its a Jay. However, he is also a skilled mimic and is able to sound perfectly like many other birds, and even cats or telephones! This makes listening out for a Jay quite a tricky proposition!
We’re entering the best time of year to go Jay-spotting. They are most conspicuous in Autumn when they are busy building up their enormous nut stores. Although they are usually good at remembering where they’ve buried their nuts, the odd forgotten store has played a vital role in maintaining our oakwoods. Acorns are their main source of food, but a Jay is certainly not above grabbing a baby rabbit or nestling if it happens to cross his path. Lucky friends of mine report the Jay’s increasing appearance at their bird tables, which is thankful, because if it’s a bad year for acorns, then it puts our Jay population in jeopardy, so an alternative food source for him is most welcome.
By Bettina Cassidy.