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19 April 2022

Where have all the jays come from?

How a success story from this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch hides a wider disappearing act.

By India Bourke

Spring has returned and the soaring sound of the dawn chorus is beginning to out-compete the thrum of trains and planes. Even in London’s tightly-packed streets, birds are pulsing with the arrival of lighter days – and so are the nation’s nature lovers: almost 700,000 people across the UK took part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch this year, counting more than a million birds among them.

Sparrows, blackbirds, robins, blue tits, chaffinches and wrens; all made their presence felt in the world’s largest wildlife survey. But it was the Eurasian jay that perhaps made the most mysterious appearance. 

A normally shy species – with pale pink plumage and glitzy, blue-streaked wings – the jay is more often heard than seen. Its evocative Gaelic name, “schreachag choille”, means “screamer of the woods” and reflects the wild forest habitat it has traditionally favoured. Yet this year jays were spotted so often that the bird flew up nine places in the RSPB’s annual chart, from 32nd to 23rd. Why?

At first glance, the rise seems cause for optimism. Jays may be venturing more frequently into gardens in search of human-provided food, making them easier to spot, explains Professor Richard Gregory from the RSPB. Such entrepreneurship reflects the birds’ capacity for “plasticity”, he adds, which suggests they may more successfully adapt to the stressors that climate change and other threats will likely pose in the years ahead. 

Science is also only beginning to plumb the depths of bird intelligence. At the University of Cambridge, for instance, Professor Nicola Clayton, a psychologist, and the artist in residence Professor Clive Wilkins, who is also a magician, are researching whether animals are susceptible to the same techniques of deception used by human conjurors. Jays often hide their cached food from pilfering competitors – via bluffs, fast movements or hidden pouches – and could be exploiting similar gaps in perception to those worked by magicians, experiments suggest.

But even as our understanding of birds’ capacity for invention and adaptation grows, we must also be alert to the tricks of perception and awareness that our own minds can play. Just because we are seeing more birds in gardens, for example, doesn’t mean their populations aren’t still crashing beyond the fence. Or that wider ecosystems aren’t in dire need.

[See also: Humans think they own the world but, outnumbered by birds, I am dumbfounded]

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Jays, for instance, whose Latin name is garrulus glandarius, or “babbler of the acorns”, may have been more present in gardens this year due to a shortage of their wild food source. The 2021 shortfall in acorns was particularly bad, explains the Woodland Trust, with pests and diseases doing increasing damage due to insufficient biosecurity measures at external borders. Consequently the UK is “haemorrhaging” hundreds of thousands of trees.

Furthermore, the climate crisis is making the seasonal shifts increasingly erratic, with significant differences compared to the early part of the 20th century. “Climate change means that not only does spring happen earlier (8.4 days earlier on average according to our recent estimates) but it can also create more extreme weather or shifts in weather fronts,” says Fritha West, a citizen science manager at the trust. As Robert Fuller has documented via his hidden wildlife cameras, out-of-sync seasons can have disastrous effects on the hatching of insects and the availability of food for birds: last year the brood of kingfishers he was watching all died amid the frosts.

Jay numbers may be doing OK for now (largely thanks to gamekeepers controlling crows, which prey on jays), but across Europe bird populations more generally are falling. Around 600 million have been lost since 1980. The sound of the dawn chorus is in dramatic decline.

One perhaps little-noted consequence is an increased likelihood of “shifting baseline syndrome”, in which a reduced state of nature is gradually accepted among the public due to a lack of experience or memory of its richer, fuller state. “There is a disconnect between what people see and what is actually happening out here,” warns Gregory. “You often see more birds in your garden than if you walked out into the countryside – but that’s a perverse thing. The natural environment arounds us should be full of wildlife; now, the most diverse places are in urban areas.”

The Environment Act, which came into law last year, has laudable ambitions to halt and reverse species decline by 2030 through initiatives like nature-friendly farming. Yet exactly how those targets will be achieved or enforced is still uncertain. (A public consultation is under way, but without the information or time to come to solid conclusions, cautions the legal NGO ClientEarth.)

Meanwhile, those who would slow and limit support for the natural world often paint a misleading picture of minimal change. Just last week a new, non-peer-reviewed report by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a renowned climate-sceptic think tank, argued that the climate emergency is not happening (despite overwhelming science and UN reports to the contrary).

If the surge in jay sightings teaches anything, therefore, it should perhaps be that shifting baseline syndrome must be guarded more tightly against than ever. If it is not, then there may only be a grim disappearing act one day.

[See also: Why I wept at spring’s arrival]

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