Sunday, 3 June 2012
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.