Corvids fascinate me! I know that for many they are public enemy number one and quite understandably, shepherds hate them. There are garden bird-watchers too who don’t have much time for them and in particular it seems, magpies, carrion crows and jays, for during the spring, they collectively consume the chicks of other songbirds given half a chance.
Yet despite such downsides, I do admire the intelligence that crows in general display. However, there is also a strange tradition relating to the oft despised magpie, suggesting that we should in fact respect it and in particular, that we should salute when one crosses our path! Magpies, therefore, engender varying degrees of wrath but on the other hand they demand respect … according to those for whom such legends hold sway.
The singling out of magpies as birds of ill omen goes back a long time for it was alleged that the magpie refused to become a resident of Noah’s Ark when the great flood occurred. Instead, it perched on the roof of the ark in order to survey the disastrous flood which, according to legend, submerged much of the entire world. Worse still, it is said the bird proceeded to cackle with laughter at the advancing waters - as only magpies can! Furthermore, there is a selection of verses citing the dubious qualities of magpies, such as “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a wedding, four for death”!
There are many variations on this theme from various parts of the UK. However, I’m afraid magpies do have a particularly tarnished reputation. By tradition, they are regarded as ‘thieving’ birds and I have certainly heard many stories of the magpie’s liking for shiny objects, with reports of the birds entering open windows and making off with items of jewelry. Although generally seen as black and white birds – hence the ‘pie’ element in the name – magpies, in the right kind of light, show off a brilliant greenish blue hue on the wings.
‘Mock-a-pie’ is my favourite soubriquet for these now familiar birds and at times it seems very apt indeed. However, the black nature of carrion crows, hoodie crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws adds to an ancient and deeply rooted reputation which, for many, condemns most black coloured birds as birds of extremely dubious heritage! This is a long-standing antipathy and I have known folk whose temperaments seemed stable but who literally shrank from such a ‘black’ bird.
Yet despite this natural antipathy, we cannot ignore the fact that members of the crow clan are generally among the most intelligent of the avian classes. Experiments with captive rooks and carrion crows reveal a remarkable ability to work problems out. The unrehearsed experiment with no accompanying training, in which food in the form of invertebrate life was placed in a tube the neck of which was too narrow for crows to access prompted a remarkable response. The birds proceeded to repeatedly pour containers of water into the test tube until the food, floating to the top of the rising water, thus eventually became accessible. Clever? I’d say so! Such is the extent of a whole series of experiments which have been conducted with crows in general, that they are now known to have an ability to count – not to a hundred or anything like that but certainly in single figures.
They are certainly able to reason and, un-prompted, work things out. The have also completed many relatively complex tasks set for them by scientists besides showing remarkable ingenuity without any supervision at all. Wild crows in Japan, for example, learned that when the traffic lights turned red, it was the time to place walnuts in front of the wheels of stationary vehicles, then waiting for them to turn red again before collecting the walnuts, their shells now conveniently broken!
There was a time when magpies were seldom seen in this airt. Perhaps declining control of them has been a factor but they are now resident here despite the fact that our local collared doves clearly dislike them and regularly see them off! It somehow seems incongruous that doves – birds of peace – and of course, much smaller than magpies which by the way have pretty lethal looking beaks, can so effectively send them packing! It smacks of David and Goliath! I guess that most members of the crow clan do not necessarily have to commit themselves to much in the way of preparation for forthcoming winter. All of them have extremely varied food requirements which in essence means they can exist on the widest possible range of foods, animal or vegetable.
However, there is one member of the clan which provides the exception to this rule, the jay. Not only by far the most colourful of the crows but one of the most vibrant of all our birds, jays spend much of the autumn collecting and stashing literally thousands of acorns for consumption during the winter months. Red squirrels and many rodents spend a good deal of the autumn establishing stores of nuts and seeds as food reserves for the forthcoming winter but, by and large birds, do not store food. Although nuthatches store minimal amounts of seeds in the bark of trees, their stores do not usually last longer than a week or two.
The now extremely rare great grey shrike – largely a winter visitor here - also stores food, albeit that similarly, such stores of a mixture of insects, small birds and small mammals are literally stored on spiky branches for short periods of time. Jays, however, have taken the matter of putting food away for the rainier days of winter very seriously. Indeed, it is estimated that a single jay may stash as many as 5,000 acorns in an autumn season. So much so, that jays well may be partly responsible for the natural regeneration of oak woodland. Most of those acorns are cached in a variety of locations such as holes in trees, walls or in the ground, some of which jays create themselves, or in the bark of trees, under leaf litter and in crevices in tree bark.
If squirrels may sometimes be absent minded about exactly where those stores have been hidden, jays have the reputation of remembering where most of their stores are through a combination of visual observation and good memory. Another demonstration perhaps of their intuition? However, inevitably not all 5,000 acorns thus ‘planted’ by each jay are likely to be recovered. Hence, those not collected may germinate and play their part in spreading the ethos of oak woodland, while others may be discovered by other hoarders. Astonishingly, a jay is capable of holding up to nine acorns in its gullet at a time and so seriously do jays take this task, that they may spend as much as ten hours a day collecting and stashing this vital source of winter nourishment during the autumn. However, jays are always alert to danger. Indeed, should you disturb jays, whether they are collecting acorns or just going about their normal routines, they will first screech and swear at you – I was subjected to such a volley myself the other day - then they will exit, not together but always one by one. Safety first!
It may seem incongruous that the vibrant jay is indeed a member of the crow family, most of which, at least in terms of British crows, are notoriously black. With the exception of the black and white magpie the jay bucks the crow trend with its pink, grey body plumage, bright blue wing-coverts, streaked with black and contrasting black and white on the crown and on the tail. The jay is the odd one out, colourful, aware and extremely industrious, especially during these equally colourful autumn days.