Take On Nature: Jays may be garrulus but they're also bright and beautiful

Garrulus glandarius – Ireland’s jay is a distinct race, sporting slightly darker plumage than its British and continental cousins

SEEING a thrush tugging worms from softened soil and listening to a blackbird tossing and probing through leaf litter signalled that the recent Siberian weather had passed. The birds, dependent no longer on the generosity of human offerings, were happy to return to their natural foraging.

Bright yellow flowers of lesser celandine added a first splash of colour to damp woodland paths and the secretive jay also revealed its vibrant aqua blue elbow patch and snowy white rump. Unmistakeable, it broke from cover with its characteristic screeching call. Walking through the deciduous woodland of Castle Archdale, Co Fermanagh, these sights under a bright blue sky brought to mind the Anglican hymn All things Bright and Beautiful. It seemed that 'All creatures great and small' were enthusiastically willing spring over the line.

Popular with many Christian denominations, this famous hymn was written by Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, first published in 1848 in her Hymns for Little Children. Thought to have been inspired by certain psalms, there is no doubt that the hymn argues for God as the designer of the natural world, a world to be cherished for its beauty and diversity.

Born in Dublin in 1818, Alexander wrote verses throughout her childhood and by the 1840s she was already well known as a hymn writer,with many of her compositions included in Church of Ireland hymn books.

She has connections with both the north and west of Ireland. As a guest at Markree Castle, Collooney, Co Sligo, in 1848, she wrote her ‘bright and beautiful’ hymn while two years later in Strabane, Co Tyrone, she married the Rev William Alexander, who went on to become bishop of Derry and Raphoe and later, archbishop of Armagh.

The jay, Garrulus glandarius, a member of the crow family, is common and widespread throughout our broad-leaved woodlands and parks but it can be difficult to see, its harsh call often the only sign of its presence.

This call earns it the Irish name, ‘Scréachóg choille’, shrieking or screeching bird of the wood. Our most colourful corvid, it has a mostly pinkish-brown body, black and white wing feathers and that flash of blue on its elbow. Its black and white streaked crown and white rump are very noticeable in flight.

Shakespeare acknowledges its striking colours in The Taming of the Shrew, when Petruchio says: "What, is the jay more precious than the lark/Because his feathers are more beautiful?"

Notably, Ireland’s jay is a distinct race, sporting slightly darker plumage than its British and continental cousins. Jays feed on insects, seeds and sometimes young birds but acorns are the most important component of its diet, buried during autumn in large caches for eating through harsh winters.

Although jays remember with a high degree of accuracy the locations of these stores, they inevitably miss some and consequently they contribute to the spread of new oak woodlands.

Hunted in the past for their colourful plumage – highly valued for fly-tying – jays are now less persecuted than other crows. Gatherings known as 'crow marriages' sometimes occur in spring, offering young jays the chance to pair up.

Jays also exhibit the unusual behaviour known as ‘anting’, when the bird will disturb an ant’s nest, allowing them to swarm all over its body. Explanations for this range from the soothing effect the ants may have on irritated skin during moulting, to feather maintenance through parasite control or simply that the birds enjoy it.

Travelling home, I shared the grateful sentiments of Alexander’s lines: "He gave us eyes to see them, /And lips that we might tell."

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