The conservation and heritage charity for the
Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park

Weekly Nature Watch

Country View 18.10.17

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These have not been prosperous times for savers with interest rates so low that savings grow only at a snail's pace. However, the concept of saving is probably entirely alien to those families struggling to survive on low incomes, but nature's savers do not have a choice. Indeed, the very raison d'etre for their assiduous hoarding at this time of the year is to survive the rigours of forthcoming winter. For instance, the squirrels discussed last week, busy themselves by collecting nature's harvest and stashing the fruits of the season away, burying vast quantities of food or secreting it away in cracks in the bark of trees.

Those squirrels are among the most assiduous of savers. However, there are many other animals that follow their example. Not surprisingly, foxes also develop caches of food - saving their hard won prey for that rainy day. The fox cub I reared from the tender age of three days old some years ago - she remained with us until she died, aged thirteen - was an inveterate saver. I suppose that anyway, compared with her wild cousins, she always lived a life of luxury, well fed with hardly a care in the world and of course, sublimely free from persecution.

Nevertheless, she obeyed her instincts and regularly buried surplus food. In particular, she loved hen eggs. It is incredible just how gentle foxes can be. She would accept the egg with much care so as not to crack it and then she would go off and find some soft soil in her run, dig a hole, place the egg in it and then cover it, using her nose to ensure a neat finish! She was, I suppose, a comparatively 'fat cat', compared with neighbouring wild foxes.

And, you may be surprised to know that moles are also obsessive savers too. Moles, of course, have voracious appetites, their main source of food worms, which they pursue with remarkable zeal. There was, during the nineteenth century, much argument about a theory that moles established worm banks by disabling and then storing them. Now it is acknowledged that that is exactly what moles do. They don't kill their victims but disable them by biting their heads off in order to isolate them from their primitive brains and thus paralysing them. It is their way of putting them in cold storage to ensure they don't go off!

This ensures that when the ground becomes frozen solid in exceptionally cold conditions, the moles still have access to fresh food supplies. Curiously enough, any worms that survive the winter can eventually re-grow their heads and thus their brains, before escaping! Wood mice also busy themselves at this time of the year gathering a harvest of food and storing it in shallow soil or underground, for instance in drains.

Surprisingly, there are birds, which also store food, stashing away surplus food for those shorter and life-threatening days of winter. Coal tits are perhaps one of the birds that are most vulnerable and susceptible in hard winters. Indeed, coal tits are amongst the birds that will sometimes roost together in confined places - old nest-boxes for instance - snuggling together for warmth. Although they do come to bird-tables they also resort to collecting and storing seeds when they are abundant, for later consumption when food is otherwise scarce.

I believe coal tits are the only small birds that make such provision but many readers will I'm sure not be surprised to know that the other birds that are clever enough to stash surplus food away for consumption during the harsher winter months are member sof the crow family. But as I have often remarked, the crow clan is surely the intelligentsia of the avian community. Magpies for instance, are shrewd enough to collect food when it is abundant and bury it as an insurance against shortages during winter.

However, the most unlikely saver is perhaps the colourful jay. The white flash of a jay's rump seen the other day reminded me that jays are indeed among our most colourful birds and in that respect are very different from other crows in which black is so dominant. Jays are, of course, notoriously disliked by gamekeepers, perhaps partially because they are indeed paid up members of that hated crow clan but also because in springtime they are apt to raid small bird nests for their young. However, jays are largely vegetarian and perhaps on analysis, they are in fact, not such pests after all but surprisingly, ardent conservationists.

The jays themselves seem to be well aware of their unpopularity for at the appearance of people, they are usually swift to beat a hasty retreat. Yet in retreat they are also discreet, seldom flying together but singly, one after the other, always a fair distance apart, thus making themselves more difficult targets. They are not necessarily so discreet vocally for their raucous screeching is certainly a familiar sound to woodland walkers! Indeed the Gaelic for jay, 'Schreachag choille', translates as 'screamer of the woods'! Their pink, black, brown, white and grey plumage, embellished with vivid flashes of azure blue on each wing, makes this one of our most colourful resident birds.

These blue flashes are presumably why in some parts of central Scotland they are known as 'blue jays'. They also rejoice in many parts of Scotland in the nickname of 'gae' perhaps a misspelling of their proper name, 'jay piet' and 'oak jackdaw'. The latter name I suspect, because of firstly, their relationship with other crows and secondly for their obsession with acorns.

And this is indeed why they may claim to be conservationists, for they are amongst the most assiduous of hoarders, collecting at this time of the year, vast numbers of acorns, which they bury. These are their means of surviving the shortages of food apparent during the winter months. However, although they seem to have exceptionally good memories for re-locating such riches, they bury far more than they are ever going to need and as a consequence, other creatures exploit these stores and the rest simply sprout! From little acorns come big oaks and it is said of jays that they are responsible for the expansion of many of our precious oak woodlands.

Such is the energy of jays during the autumn that some observers have estimated that each jay may collect and bury as many as five thousand acorns during the autumn. One student of jay-lifestyle went so far as to suggest that if every day, making up an estimated British population of 170,000 pairs, was so assiduous, the result might be that 1,700,000,000 acorns could be buried each and every year by jays alone! Extraordinary! Such planting zeal probably puts the likes of Forestry Commission in the shade!

Jays usually sound raucous but especially in the breeding season, they are known as skilled mimics, imitating for instance, the calls of buzzards and owls and when threatened, the alarm calls of other woodland dwellers such as blackbirds. Perhaps therefore, we should regard them as the true guardians of our wildlife-rich oak woodlands as well as earnest savers and conservationists?

Any natural place contains an infinite reservoir of information, and therefore the potential for inexhaustible new discoveries.

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods