Tuesday, 11 April 2017

The Eurasian Jay - Garrulus glandarius

"There is a track where I can be pretty sure to see a jay," wrote Bob Horne - author of Caterpillar Poetry collection Knowing My Place, and publisher of the ground-breaking Calder Valley Poetry series, in an email back in February, "and I enjoy watching it through the binoculars for five minutes. You hardly ever used to see jays."

Bob's email got me thinking about a poem I'd had knocking around for about eight years.  Perhaps eccentrically, I tend to only write animal poetry about animals I have actually seen (excepting surreal, humorous or children's poetry) and as such, the woodland wandering Eurasian Jay did not glide into my poetry until the spring of 2009.  Given the frequency of my sightings nowadays, this surprises me.  During the late winter, barely a stroll along the canal or riverside woodlands of Sowerby Bridge passes without even one brief sighting of the familiar smooth shades of pinkish grey rustling through the overhanging branches, a flash of the cerulean stripes upon their wings. But as Bob said, not long ago the jay was quite an elusive bird.  However, erosion of its woodland habitats has compelled the bird to migrate further into cities.  The Eurasian Jay, known for emitting harsh cries when spotting predators (but also a brilliant mimic, capable of concealing its identity from assailants and pulling off impressions of owls and other birds even as they attack), is a keen consumer of earthworms, sometimes takes nestlings or small mammals, but is best known for eating acorns, which it stores for winter food.  Jays also eat other nuts and seeds, but their acorn-based diets see them predominantly populating oak woodlands. Indeed, before the mass-planting of commercially grown oak trees, the trees' main source of propagation was the Eurasian Jay.

Despite this connection to oaks, my instinct in writing about jays was to place them among a different type of tree - the sycamore.  This is partly down to having observed them drifting in and out of the sycamores dotting the woodlands adjacent to my then home in north Leeds, but also because the colour of the sycamore bark - earthy and yet bone-like, as if a sort of hybrid of animal and plant - seems in keeping with the ambiguous nature of the mysterious jay.  I had been reading a lot of Deep Ecology around 2009, and, concerned by Climate Change, my state of mind seemed to fluctuate between a sense of dread at imminent planetary collapse and joyful relief at the slightest sighting of an unexpected bird.  At the same time, I was attracted to the fluffy-looking novelty of the jays, their bouncy eyes and frizzy colours, which is why I found myself comparing them to fancy chocolates - truffles, to be precise, as well as feeling that these symbols of old English woodlands communicated a traditional folk memory.  Thus, the first sighting of a jay was summarized in the following rather fanciful terms:

looping into sycamore,
a fluttering truffle of Deep Earth
exploring air, a feathery folksong.

I feel the Eurasian Jay is curiously English in character, and yet I know that this is silly - as its name suggests, the bird - a sometime summer migrant - is found across a vast variety of countries, and there are populations of Garrulus glandarius as far afield as Africa.  But I am not alone in often having to look twice just to be sure that the sassy flashes of glittery blue which go swooshing through the woods are indeed jays.  As Bill Oddy put it, in his BBC 4 series Bill Oddie's Top 10 Birds: 

It's almost as if it's too colourful to be a British bird. But if you see pink, stripes, flashes of blue and white, a grating squawk and a droopy moustache, it's most definitely a jay, not - as some mistakenly believe - a hoopoe. Jays are members of the crow family and as such they are partial to carrion, but these colourful birds do fulfil an important role: by collecting acorns and burying them, oak forests can continue to grow.

I seem to see them busiest at this important work in the mid to late mornings, or flitting through the branches as the sun comes up, on mornings when I tread my way along the railway embankments en-route for my train to work.  Yet, despite the regularity of these sightings, I have always struggled to capture the birds on camera, and I envy Bob Horne's five-minute observations!  My glances are almost always fleeting, and despite the crystalline sheen of those sky-blue, frizzy wings, the birds seem to blend into the foliage or leaves. Perhaps this is why, in 2009, I wrote

like a lovely smudge your shape,
so browny and blue-soaked, floats

Shortly after Bob's email, my poem was completed.  His comments on the birds somehow channelled my own thoughts into something more coherent. "As well as their plumage," wrote Bob,  "I like their solitariness, although I know there are times of the year when they can be seen in small flocks."  This is true.  Eurasian Jays also pair long term with mating partners.  But they sleep alone, in their brushwood nests covered with leaf-blades, stems and roots, up in the boughs of the oaks whose acorns they so adore to eat.  It is said that the Eurasian Jay displays a peculiarly prudent intelligence in storing its quarries for future food, and this too seems a quality synonymous with these sylvan, soft-footed magicians of disguise - a certain patience, a love of secrecy and a tendency towards survival, a foresight to see it through the hard, hungry winter, until the onset of a season more becoming of its airy gifts of sapphire and light.


Yours are moments in midmorning
un-impinged and set adrift
from schedules or clock-strokes -

like a lovely smudge your shape,
so browny and blue-soaked, floats by
just like an off-stump corky ball

looping into sycamore,
a fluttering truffle of Deep Earth
exploring air, a feathery folksong.

Seeing you is like a letter
from a sloppy correspondent,
always cause for pausing,

special, not spectacular,
half-expected, yet surprising,
subtle, and yet beautiful.

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