Sunday, 3 June 2012

jay walking

This rather magnificent avian specimen haunted my youth. I always wanted to see a hoopoe - even the name was exotic. Odd. I desperately wanted to see one and there used to be a standing joke about vicars seeing them on their lawns - writing to The Times to report sightings. I may have made that up but it rings a little bell somewhere in the back of my memory. As a child I never saw one. Although reported as "rarely seen in Britain", I held on to the fact that that meant it must occasionally be seen in Britain, so there was always hope.

I thought I saw a pair many years ago in France but they were, in hindsight, just magpies. This beautiful illustration is by a certain E. Demartini - another exotic name. It is from a book that I was given as a Christmas present in 1964. The book in question is Birds of Field and Forest by no discernable author. It's an A4 size book that I have kept since those halcyon days. First published in 1959, mine is a fourth edition.

In fact, I first saw a hoopoe about eleven years ago in Mallorca. I must say I was a little disappointed at first. The magnificent creature I imagined to be regal and huge - at least as big as a cormorant - turned out to be about the size of a jackdaw. And a dull brown. And where was that magnificent crown? We saw loads in Egypt a couple of years ago too. They didn't seem to be quite bright orange unless all the hoopoes I've seen have been females? That seems unlikely. However, hoopoes they all were. I'm not disappointed any more, just glad to have seen such an elusive bird - elusive throughout my childhood, that is.

The reason I came across this picture again is because I was looking for an illustration of that most elusive and beautiful of British birds, the jay. I can't ever remember seeing one of them in my childhhod either. In fact this book doesn't actually feature the jay at all. The aforementioned hoopoe, golden oriole and the wryneck all appear. Each as elusive in my childhood as rain in the summer holidays (!). It has nightjars too, I only saw them for the first time a few years ago. A few of them rose up out of a field I was walking in whilst doing the Sandlings Walk. However, last week as I drove through the Suffolk countryside to get to my last physiotherapy appointment there was a flash of pink, white and blue across the small country lane right in front of the car. The unmistakeable sight of a jay. I would have loved to see such a sight as a child. I don't even know if I was aware that they existed then - as I hadn't seen one, nor did my book tell me there was such a creature. But there it was.

They are one of our most gaudy creatures but also one of our most shy as well. Simon Barnes says that they don't often show themselves but do occasionally "just to startle non-birdwatchers*". Another source says that they fly across roads singly possibly because of their aching shyness. Or possibly just for protection. Jays are really important in Britain and on this day of such Britishness, it's worth mentioning them. They are essential to oak trees as they feed on acorns. Like squirrels they bury them for later in the autumn when food is becoming less easy to source. Unlike squirrels, they tend to remember where they buried them. As they can't get all of their acorns back, therefore the oaks are able to slowly gain more ground and spread. A long-term ambition as Barnes points out.

The only time I have ever been to Holland was also the only time I have ever been to a Centreparc. As we cycled - what else would you do? It was Holland - through the woods we were suddenly surprised by at least three of these wonderful creatures. There were many more around the woods. It was a lovely moment and probably my most pleasant memory of the whole week. As my mother died back home in England whilst we were there, pleasant memories are needed. I'd like to think that she may have had something to do with that magical moment. A little too fanciful, I suppose. The family were blown away by their beauty and seeming friendliness. They were happy to hop and flit about whilst we stood there in awe and amazement. Perhaps Dutch jays are less shy. I guess I'll never know.

Serendipity in action, I suppose. After wanting so much to see some of these wonderful exotic creatures that share our environment with us (hoopoes, jays etc) all those years ago, now I am often allowed a glimpse of heaven. The jay has been described as "the British bird of Paradise" by W. H. Hudson. Last week I only took the country road because of a hold up on the A14, so nipped off piste to try to get to my appointment in time. I'm so glad I did.

In thrall to this splendid creature I did what amounts to research to most British students, I typed "poems about jays" into Google. I gave up quickly, much like the students tend to. I haven't been able to find any so far (other than American ones about Blue Jays). I would have thought either John Clare or Ted Hughes might have done one. Despite being an English teacher, I don't have an extensive knowledge of poetry, so if anyone out there knows of any let me know.

Also, they seem to be one of the few birds in British folklore that doesn't have any myths or stories about it. I guess all that secrecy and shyness has paid off. Everyone seems as ignorant of them as I was as a child.

* In A Bad Birdwatcher's Companion, a book for the bookshelf not the rucksack.


Mike C. said...

I, too, used to own that book -- the illustrations are clearly made from stuffed specimens, hence that tousled, faded look, a bit like ancient soft toys.

I, too, was a frustrated birdwatcher in Stevenage, an environment with -- in retrospect -- a drastically thinned out diversity of species. Despite being a member of the YOC/RSPB from age 9 and keeping a close watch on the neighbourhood, I never saw anything more exotic than a blue tit.

Down here in Hampshire, jays are a common sight from our kitchen window, along with other colourful visitors -- green and lesser-spotted woodpeckers, goldfinches, goldcrests, long-tailed tits, not to mention a dozen other "brown jobbies", the odd buzzard and -- I swear -- a migating osprey that I saw through the skylight in our downstairs loo. At night, owls shriek and hoot outside our bedroom windows.

I have seen hoopooes twice, both times in the Dordogne in summer, and they were indeed very pink and crested like cockatoos. They have the best Latin name: Upupa epops.


Dave Leeke said...

I have never thought of that - looking at the book again now as it lies beside me, it seems obvious. Then that's because you're a genuine artist whereas I've always been such a dilettante.

I also used to have a fantastic book called "Birds of the World" which was huge. Perhaps where the idea of coffee table books came from - it was big enough to BE a coffee table. It had a great illustration of a roadrunner with a lizard in its mouth. I spent fruitless hours driving through the South West of the States hoping to see one - all because of that illustration from my childhood.

I have a feeling that I've tended to see hoopoes in shade. They definitely were more colourful than I may have suggested (possibly for effect).

With your other comments in mind, may I suggest "A Patch Made In Heaven" by Dominic Couzens? I'm reading it at the moment alongside "Sightlines". It's about birdwatching on a more personal, local level.

Brendini said...

Jays are beautiful looking birds but can only produce a sodding hideous noise.
They may well be more comfortable with humans in Holland and not Britain. Robins are garden birds that may eventually be coaxed to take food from the hand in Blighty. In France they are shy woodland birds.

Mike C. said...


Yep, had that one, too. I suspect they must have been prominently on display in W.H. Smith around Xmas time.

My favourites were the Bird Spotting series (by John Holland) -- about ten little squarish volumes, sponsored by the RSPB, each a different colour and covering a different group of birds. 2s 6d each, if I remember.

I'll have a look at the one you recommend, though I'm deep in "Bring Up the Bodies" just now.


Dave Leeke said...

Well, Brendan, as Barnes points out, "The jay is a beautifully and uninhibitedly colourful bird, so it is only fair that it should make an uninhibitedly raucous and ugly din. It would hardly be fair if it were to sing like a nightingale."

That also goes for the gorgeous greenfinch which must have been last in the queue for a song. That awful, irritating "zwweee" as one sits on top of a neighbour's arial never fails to drive me mad.

Martyn Cornell said...

Some 39 or 40 years ago, when I had a holiday job as a not-very-helpful builder's labourer in Stevenage, I was 12 stories up on top of the Manulife building alongside St George's Church when a jay flashed past - nearly fell off the roof, I was so startled. They can be seen (and heard) in Teddington cemetery. about a quarter of a mile from where I live, but they're vastly less common in West London than the ubiquitous magpies, despite the large areas of parkland around here. Our most colourful common birds locally are the ring-necked parakeets, which fly over my house at dusk on their way home to roost in the trees by the Thames at East Molesey.

Dave Leeke said...

Oh how times have changed. It's interesting that you say the most common birds around you are ring-necked parakeets in the week that the RSPB has announced that they are worried about the disappearence of London's indigenous sparrows ( Obviously parakeets are much prettier and I have observed some grey ones around Ipswich. But we do seem to live in a time of huge changes - not all for the best, I fear.

Martyn Cornell said...

Sparrows are very common in Abu Dhabi, and quite common in Hong Kong, so whatever's driven them out of London, it ain't mobile phone radiation

Dave Leeke said...

Perhaps they've gone to find some better weather. This is the worst June I can remember!