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Love is in the air

Outdoor Living

WOOING WITH FOOD  As part of the courtship ritual of pair of jays, the male provides food to the female.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

The sudden cold has done nothing to dampen the ardor of our local jay pair, who have been shrieking and chasing around the woods with an evident sense of excitement. This is their courtship – not that they need it, for they are an established pair, an old married couple. But who would deny them their passion?
I followed their scratching calls through the woods as far as the old ring fort, where thick thorns made further progress all but impossible. I stopped there to rest and merely listen, and soon found myself immersed in an ancient, primeval Ireland, with many centuries wiped away, the land about me unfettered, uncluttered, and nearly as wild as ever it was.
All about me were the pale green stars that are honeysuckle buds, hovering amid a tangle of winding stems, each new leaf perfect in colour and form. I saw again how the plant sends its growth in a clockwise direction and searched without result for one going the other way. The whole world is clockwise, it seems, and although lockdown has me partially cured of this I still find myself looking more at the watch on my wrist than at the greater timepiece of the sky.
Hazel catkins are fully out in this sheltered spot, the golden-green male flowers spilling clouds of bright pollen at the lightest touch. The female flowers are mere buds held tight to ochre twigs; it is these that will produce the crop of nuts come the autumn. Hazel is monoecious, that is, it has both male and female flowers growing separately on the same plant. Yet the female flowers must receive pollen from another nearby hazel if they are to be successful. I find it all very mysterious and wonderful.
The scrubby wood absorbs the distant drone of farm machinery and fills patient ears with creeping things. A mouse scuttles through a drift of leaves, seeking lost seeds and maybe a beetle or two. A wren, careless of my presence, goes about her business, searching every nook and cranny for tiny invertebrates.
While the air is still at ground level the twigs above my head sway gently in the breeze to create a barely audible yet reassuring backdrop of sound by their rubbing together, and there, dancing through the tops, an acrobatic family group of long-tailed titmice add their thin voices to proceedings.
So enwrapped do I become that the jays are forgotten until they suddenly appear, one close to the tail of the other. They see me at the same moment and give a shriek of dismay – their secret corner is discovered! – then bound away, flashing blue and white through a momentary shaft of sunlight, and fall silent.
A few years ago this most colourful member of the crow family was scarce in these parts, yet they appear to be expanding their northerly range year on year.
I was feeding them through the winter, piercing their favourite red apples on sticks in the hope they would become semi-tame. Yet they continued to elude me. Careful observance revealed their tactics. While one would act watchman from a high vantage the other would swoop down to snatch a few beakfuls of fruit before taking flight once more. The merest twitch of the curtains would send the pair of them away through the trees, leaving nothing more than a screeching laugh behind, reminiscent of errant schoolboys caught in the orchard.
In a week or two these birds will fall silent, and we will know they are busy at homebuilding. Seen from below, the jay’s nest is an untidy bundle of sticks such as might accumulate in the fork of a tree, tight to the trunk, by circumstance alone. Seen from above it becomes an intricate piece of work, with pliable twigs and rootlets skillfully woven to form a softly furnished bowl.
This will become home to five or six eggs, then to an equal number of nestlings. Through the brooding period the adults will become highly secretive and extremely difficult to observe. I know of very few who have seen woodland jays at the nest.
It must be a tough life for young jays in Mayo for I never see more than two fledged from a brood, whereas large families were common in the better wooded, more diverse land of my native Devon. There are changes afoot wherever we look.