Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ampthill Park

Back home now, I went for an early morning walk over Ampthill Park, enjoying the ‘soft, refreshing rain’.

A Sparrowhawk over Laurel Wood was being mobbed by a couple of Carrion Crows. A little earlier, I’d felt like I was being mobbed by a couple of Jays. It happened as I wandered beneath some tall Oak trees, suddenly finding several acorns thumping the ground around me as they fell from above. I looked up to see two Jays amongst the branches. As I watched, one of them pecked at a twig bearing several acorns…again the acorns fell, just missing me.

The Jay’s Latin name, Garrulus glandarius, roughly translates as ‘noisy acorn eater’, but these individuals seemed to be ‘furtive acorn throwers’! Were they being capricious, or simply incompetent?

The answer is that they were probably being choosy. Experiments have shown that Jays tend to prefer acorns that are both ready for picking and undamaged, and that size probably matters, too! I guess the acorns peppering the ground at my feet were simply not up to it!

After seeing so many Jays in France, it was good to catch up with them just down the road from home, too. This is the best time of year for seeing them as they collect their acorn harvest and carry them for burial. If the burial site is some distance from the trees, they will probably carry up to five acorns: several stored in the throat with the largest gripped in the beak.

The most amazing thing about these ‘colourful crows’ as far as I’m concerned is their astonishing memory. Each individual Jay can collect nearly 5000 acorns, and these are not buried in a cache, but one-by-one, ready for retrieval during hard times. Of course, a number must get missed, but many are re-located by memory alone, even from under a covering of snow.

The Jays weren’t the only birds out harvesting this morning. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flew into the topmost branches of a dead tree with a sprig of Beechmast. After extricating the nuts it threw the remains nonchalantly over its shoulder!

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