Watching wildlife seems to give rise to more questions than answers. It often requires detective work, as I was reminded by two recent occurrences.
I looked out of the bedroom window and there it was – a corpse on the lawn. A grey bundle surrounded by a scattering of feathers – one very dead wood pigeon. After breakfast, granddaughter Megan and I went out to investigate. The bird’s head was gone and there was a large wound in its breast where the feathers had been torn away. We could even see the imprint of sharp beak-marks in the flesh. We deduced that a sparrowhawk had dived on the feeding pigeon and fed off the most nutritious parts. Either the prey was too heavy to move, or the predator was disturbed. We never found the head!
All this was relatively straightforward compared with the next mystery. Mid-afternoon, and a friend had been sitting quietly in his home in central Ilkley when he heard a tawny owl cry followed by a hoot. He rushed to the window in time to see – not an owl but a jay – flying out of a nearby tree onto the grass. This happened on two subsequent occasions. This, I thought, was a case for the experts so I contacted two of our very knowledgeable ornithologists. After some research, they came back with a fascinating bit of information. It’s not surprising to hear that jays, part of the super-intelligent crow family, are good mimics. Apparently captive jays have been known to produce the sounds of barking dogs, motorbike horns and human voices. In the wild they mimic other birds from warblers to curlews. And – when facing a predator – they have the habit of imitating its alarm call. Apparently they are particularly known for imitating tawny owls just before mobbing. It seems plausible to assume a tawny was peacefully roosting in our friend’s tree and the jay took exception to this and went into the attack with a hoot!
Both sparrowhawk and jay probably had young back in the nest. Our garden is full of young finches, and the bluetits in the nestbox have begun peering out at the world. Another friend told me that the family of house martins in his barn near Addingham has already fledged, much earlier than is usual there. Time for the parents to rear two more broods this season!