By Calvin Jones
The jay is one of Ireland’s most striking birds with its brightly coloured pink, black, white and blue plumage. Although they are the most colourful member of the crow family, jays can be surprisingly difficult to see. They are shy, and secretive woodland birds that rarely venture far from cover.
If there are jays in the neighbourhood, however, you will invariably hear them. They are noisy birds and their distinctive harsh screeching, usually given when they’re on the move, tends to betray their presence. When you hear the call look out for a colourful medium-sized bird on the wing through the trees, and particularly the flash of a distinctive white rump. Once you spot a jay there really is no mistaking it for anything else.
The adult bird is generally a pinkish-brown colour with a black tail, white throat and rump and a conspicuous blue patch on each of its black and white wings. A broad black “moustache” extends from the base of the bill down both sides of a white bib, and the white crown is streaked with black. Sexes are similar, and juvenile birds resemble the adults but tend to be fluffier in appearance and are generally redder in colour.
Jays are found in most parts of Ireland wherever there is suitable woodland habitat and are resident all year round. Although they are secretive birds they do tend to become more conspicuous in the autumn, when they often make repeated trips to collect acorns from one area and carry them to cache them elsewhere. The jay’s fondness of acorns and its habit of caching food in this way mean that jays play a vital role in the establishment and maintenance of the few native oak woodlands still left in Ireland. A single bird can bury several thousand acorns each autumn – many of which will be left to germinate.
Although acorns form the bulk of a typical jay’s diet, they are also known to feed on grains, invertebrates, beech nuts and sweet chestnuts. Jays also raid other birds’ nests during the summer if they get the opportunity, taking eggs and young.