DÚLRA nearly fainted to find this amazing bird on his garden feeder this week.
It’s like a bird of paradise – but many, many times bigger than those tiny hummingbirds.
It’s a jay – scréachóg in Irish – a native bird that just didn’t exist in Dúlra’s youth. The closest he ever got to one was when he found a beautiful fluorescent blue feather on a path in Colin Glen – it could only have been that flash of blue from the jay’s wing – and kept it for years as a bookmark. But as for the bird itself, well, it was more myth than reality.
The jay was yet another victim of the denuding of the Irish countryside. Jays love forests, and without trees they are homeless. The slither of forest that makes up Colin Glen might just have been enough to attract a pair, but despite scanning the treetops on every visit over decades, Dúlra never did see one there.
A jay in one of our Wicklow reserves, one of Ireland's many corvids and the most colourful. Ireland has it’s own variety of Jay (Garrulus glandarius hibernicus) with slightly darker plumage than British and continental counterparts. pic.twitter.com/fEICYol0DF— NativeWoodlandTrust (@NativeWoodTrust) July 11, 2020
And maybe that’s not so surprising, because this bird is an enigma. The size of a jackdaw with pink and blue feathers and a bright white rump, you’d think it would be hard to miss. But it seems to have a magical quality that makes it invisible, like it wears the elven cloak from Lord of the Rings.
Unlike all the other members of the crow family, it keeps relatively quiet. It’s like the noisy magpie’s county cousin – shy and reserved.
Which is why it’s so unusual to find it at your garden feeder.
It never visited here before – so given the time of year, it’s probably feeding its chicks in the nest, and with the unusually cold May, it’s forced to come out of cover and go further afield to make sure they get enough to survive.
In Dúlra's garden it's feasting on peanuts – but this bird was in its element in Ireland’s ancient oak forests. In fact, it’s believed that the jay was the reason that oaks spread north after the last ice age. A single bird can bury a thousand acorns a year as food during winter, sometimes carrying them 20km. October is the most likely time you'll see one when it’s busy collecting those acorns.
We know jays were once common in Ireland because they were here that long that they developed into a unique Irish sub-species, which is darker than its continental or British cousins. The pink on the bird on Dúlra’s feeder is richer than the birds you’ll see in international bird books.
Oaks of course take many years to mature, and they are few and far between in the hills around Belfast. But, thankfully, many have been planted in recent years in parks and even city streets. And that’s given the struggling Irish jay its big break.
They’ve managed to colonise our parks – Dúlra would guess every Belfast park has at least one pair.
You might never see one as you dander through, but they will be keeping an eye on you as they skulk among the foliage of the thickest tree, just as they must have done in Colin Glen when Dúlra was a youngster.
But it seems there now is a way you can see this shy, remarkable bird – just hang out some peanuts in your garden.
AS is usual at this time of year, Dúlra is getting plenty of messages from readers who are discovering ‘injured’ birds in their gardens. Some of the birds might well be injured, but most of them are just young birds that haven’t learned how to fly yet. The best advice I can give is just leave them in your garden – normally the parents know where they are even if you don’t see them. If you’re afraid cats might get them, you can lift the young bird on to a branch. This week a beautiful brood of robins just appeared in Dúlra’s garden – I’ve no idea where the nest was, but thankfully the family was successfully raised. Although the real battle begins now they’re out in the big, bad world!
• If you’ve seen or photographed anything interesting, or have any nature questions, you can text Dúlra on 07801 414804.