Photo: Cock of the rock: mossy boulders like this are well received by aviary jays

 

Like many other species of crow, the jay is a plausible mimic, which adds entertainment to the company of captive individuals. Bill Naylor shares his experience of jays in the aviary and in the wild, where they are heard more than seen

 

ONE of the most handsome British birds, the jay, is also one of the most secretive. Unlike most of the other British crows which are brazen and extrovert, the jay keeps its distance. This is a common trait among many other jay species, which include the smallest of the corvids.

Our native jay frequents woods, parks and areas with plenty of foliage. Jays are usually not far from beech and oak trees; acorns being a main food at certain times, beech at others. It’s only recently that they have become regular visitors to bird tables, mainly for peanuts. This started in earnest when acorn crops failed in the 1980s. They will also visit allotments when peas and fruit are ripe.

A natural mimic

Many people have never seen a jay. You are more likely to hear its screeching call “kaaak-kraaak,” than see it up close. When I worked in zoos, it was not unusual to get reports of an escaped exotic bird, which turned out to be a jay. In the open, jays fly high in an undulating flight. If disturbed in woodland they slip away from view on silent wings, displaying the white undertail coverts and rump.

The European jay has a wide distribution in Europe, Asia and north Africa, west to Ireland and east to Japan. There are more than 25 subspecies varying slightly in coloration and size. One (Garrulus glandarius hibernicus) occurs in Ireland, while another (G. g. rufitergum) is found in Scotland, England, Wales and north-west France.

The name derives from its rasping call. Other birds with similar calls, such as the chough and mistle thrush, were once known respectively as the Cornish jay and jay thrush.

The jay is an excellent mimic, copying the mewing of the buzzard and other bird sounds. Its bubbling song also incorporates other birds’ vocals. It will reproduce alarm calls of blackbirds when  intruders are nearby, as if rallying support. If fledglings are handled, the adults have been known to mimic the carrion crow and tawny owl, both nest predators of jays.

Although hand-reared birds can become tame, they don’t become imprinted on humans as magpies and the black species of crows do. However, I have had them regularly return to the garden aviary where they were raised after being released.

They begin to mimic as fledglings. Like other young corvids and parrots, they make noises in their throat as if perfecting vocals. However, the jay is less likely than other British corvids to mimic the human voice. That said, one I hand-reared imitated the cries of a neighbour’s baby. It also copied the trickling of a waterfall and a plane going overhead.

They show their intelligence by associating sounds with events. One jay I kept mewed like the resident cat when it saw a tin of cat food. It also imitated a piano, whenever my daughter – the pianist in the family – appeared. A pair of jays in an aviary communicate with a combination of raucous calls and softer vocals. Although birdkeepers who keep jays will often be able to distinguish the sex of their birds, sexes are similar.

Take care with chicks

Jays require a spacious aviary as high as possible, furnished with foliage, logs, rocks and deep leaf litter or tree bark. Here they will hop around on the ground, foraging and investigating every nook and cranny. They are calm and steady birds if given a spacious aviary and can be safely housed with pigeons, quail, pheasants and related birds. (The eggs of those birds will be vulnerable, however.)

The black-headed jay (G. lanceolatus) from India, in which the female has a shorter bill, was at one time the best-known Asiatic jay in aviculture. It has obvious similarities to our jay. Captive black-headed jays were notorious for suddenly killing their  nestlings and later devouring them. This was thought to be due to insufficient food being provided for rearing, yet it can also be a sign of breeding birds suffering from stress.

Anting and stashing

European jays enjoy bathing, and “anting”: a ritual that a number of bird species indulge in, which is thought to rid the plumage of parasites. When “anting” jays lie wings outstretched on an ant hill, crest raised, feathers fluffed up – the same posture adopted when sunbathing. If you place a dish of ants in a jay’s aviary they will immediately pick them up and carefully, so as not to damage the insects, place them in their plumage.

Jays eat a great deal of invertebrates and their larvae, especially caterpillars. Some seeds, mainly from conifers like pines, are also consumed. Bread from bird tables is usually soaked in water prior to being eaten. They have also been known to take fish from shallow ponds.

Captive jays will sample any food on offer and like all corvids they stash it. In autumn and spring the wildlings’ main food is acorns. If acorns fail in other parts of Europe, jays from those areas will migrate to the UK in search of food.

In autumn they are busy harvesting the acorn crop, where they can be observed carrying several acorns in their throat pouch. But they also bury a good proportion to unearth and feed on in the spring. They have demonstrated that they can remember where they have buried acorns, going direct to the location. Of course, a large surplus germinate and so jays are the principal planter of oaks trees.

Pre-breeding excitement

In late winter and early spring, noisy flocks of excited unpaired single jays are often seen and heard. If you are close enough, males can be observed raising their crests and presenting themselves sideways to hen birds. Males will occasionally fight with each other on the ground, grappling with their strong feet. (When handled, jays like all corvids will grip tightly on a hand, net, or anything within reach.)

Captive and wild courting

Courtship entails much posturing, bill clapping and mewing, with the hen bird deferring to her mate. The untidy cup nest, usually 1.8-3m (6-10ft) high is built of plant tendrils and sticks, and lined with thinner tendrils. Most are placed in the fork of a tree, close to the trunk, under camouflage of ivy or other cover.

Captive jays will nest on trays and in mesh hanging baskets. Disguising the nest with conifer branches or some other camouflage is advisable, because when breeding captive jays can become nervous. Many pairs mate for life and there is no need to separate the sexes outside the breeding season.

In the wild the female incubates the single clutch of three to 10 faded green brown speckled eggs for 16 days. However, in captive settings the male sometimes takes turns.

Breeding jays are carnivorous, and take nestlings, eggs and any birds they can catch, as well as small rodents and insects. In captivity they have reared young on a diet of pinkies, raw meat,  mealworms and dog food.

The nestlings fledge at 19-23 days and have the adult’s blue and black wing plumage. They often raise their crown feathers like miniature punk rockers. They leave the nest at three weeks. As part of the family group they can be identified as being darker than the adults with shorter beaks and bright blue eyes.

Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture.

 

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