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.
Ireland has it’s own distinct race of Jay (Garrulus glandarius hibernicus), which sports slightly darker plumage than its British and continental cousins. Adult birds are generally a pinkish-brown colour with a black tail, white throat and rump and a conspicuous blue patch on each of their 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 more reddish 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.
In spring gatherings of unpaired jays, dubbed “crow marriages”, sometimes occur. These gatherings, generally consisting of thirty or so birds, offer young jays the chance to pair up. Jays start to breed in their third spring. Courtship involves a lot of posturing with wings and tail outstretched. The nest is typically a root-lined cup of twigs high in a tree in which the female will lay 5-7 pale green eggs with buff speckles on them. The male and female take turns to incubate the eggs, which will hatch at around 16 days. Both parents then work to feed the brood, which takes about 20 days to fledge. The family stay together long after the young leave the nest, with parents continuing to feed their offspring until well into the autumn. Jays only rear one brood of young per year.
Jays have been recorded attacking crows, owls, hawks and other birds that could pose a threat by mobbing them repeatedly whilst mimicking the other birds’ calls to raise the alarm. They also exhibit another unusual behaviour known as “anting”. A jay will sometimes seek out and actively disturb an ants nest. Once the insects are suitably riled the bird will stand in the middle of the disturbed nest allowing the ants to swarm all over its body – a sensation that your average jay seems to thoroughly enjoy!