Finding a jay’s wing feather lying on the ground is one of those buried treasure moments. They are among our brightest native birds but tend to keep themselves to themselves so few of us see how colourful they are. A jay in the first few flaps of flight reveals how many of those brilliant blue, white and black feathers are hidden under its wings most of the time.
Seeing a jay is a special event. A jackdaw, less so, which is perhaps why we don’t realise how many colours are in these birds’ plumage. They have keen blue eyes and smart delineation between the dark cap on their heads and their light grey necks which make them fit in among suited commuters.
But they also wear a black rainbow that mostly we manage to overlook, with blues, purples, greens and bronzes all lurking in their feathers. Magpies also have the black rainbow and are overlooked because they are common. Jays and jackdaws are smart birds. They’re all corvids, a family whose members can learn to talk, recognise themselves in a mirror, shape implements in order to get at food and to use stones and other tools to raise the level of milk in a bottle so they can drink it.
Many of us savour our evening walks at this time of the year because we know that soon our nights will begin in the afternoon. Whatever time sunset comes, it is preceded by the noisy yakking of corvids as they begin their roost at the tops of trees. Passing them is like walking past bars and pubs and being greeted by the blast of loud, happy voices at each open door.
Most birds flee whenever people come too close. Corvids tend to size you up first, cocking their head to one side before deciding whether it is worth flying away or hobbling casually away. Often, the bright, stern eyes of a jackdaw give the impression the bird has concluded that this human in front of it is far less intelligent. If that person has failed to notice a corvid’s coat of many colours, then the bird is probably right.