Death In The Afternoon

Unlike the bullring in Spain where death forms a theatrical pageant as described by Hemmingway, death in nature happens with a sudden finality. There is no eagerly expectant audience and no swirling cape to glamourise the moment when life is taken. If caught on camera for a documentary, there may be the sonorous tones of David Attenborough to salve our consciences as we look on from afar in the comfort of our living-roooms. But usually death in nature is a lonely business with few to witness an individual’s final moments.

Sunday was a hot spring day and in the mid-afternoon I decided to sit out with a couple of magazines and some beer to enjoy the weather. Birds were singing as they went about their business, feeding and nest building. There were distant sounds of children playing and the occasional motorcycle. Someone was practising their trumpet – in readiness for the World Cup maybe? There were some muted screams from high in the air as Swifts, newly arrived from Africa, hunted insects. The only thing missing was the smell of a barbeques.

The peace was shattered around 4pm. There was a crashing from the Rowan tree and two birds burst from its branches at speed – a smaller bird pursued by a larger one. They dived into a nearby shrub – I only had a view of them for less than a second! And then there were some terrible shrieks from within the shrub leaving no doubt that the smaller bird had not escaped capture.

A minute or so later a Jay flew up into the Rowan with its prize secured in a claw. It settled down on one of the higher branches to eat a small bird whose wings were still twitching in the throes of death. A check with my binoculars identified its victim as an adult female House Sparrow. The innards were now being stretched out and swallowed like earthworms – a sight that seemed somehow incongruous against the pale-pink plumage of the Jay with its instantly identifiable blue flash on the wing.

Other small birds quickly gathered – alerted by the final cries of the Sparrow. A mix of House Sparrows and Blue Tits sat on branches at a respectable distance to make warning calls about the presence of a murderer in the tree. When the Jay finally finished its meal and departed silence fell on the garden as if the birds were exercising a quiet moment of mourning. Song gradually picked up again over the next 30 minutes. The Jay returned at around 5pm and was immediately surrounded by birds making warning calls. They were now very alert to the danger and after 5 minutes of heckling the Jay decided to try its luck elsewhere and was escorted off the premises by House Sparrows calling from the chimney top TV antennas.

We don’t think of Jays as hunters as they flap in that lazy but direct manner between trees in woodland. They’re more well known as collectors of Acorns that they bury in autumn and retrieve throughout the rest of the year. My field guides tell me that they do occasionally catch small rodents – another act carried out on the ground. Or eat other birds eggs and nestlings when nests have been left unguarded. But actually hunting an adult bird is not an activity attributed to them. With this in mind I have reported my observation to the RSPB. I suspect that the Jay sat quietly in the shady side of the tree close to the trunk waiting for a possible victim to come close enough for it to pounce.

In nature it only takes a moment of inattention for death in the afternoon!

Information about the Jay here.

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12 Comments

    1. We rarely get Jackdaws Gerry although they are in the area. The Jay pops by a couple of times a week. We get Magpies very regularly though they usually come to rest in the tree after having a bath! The occasional Carrion Crow also passes through.

    1. Lol Patti – I think it’s OHMS with a license to terminate with extreme prejudice. But really this seems like unusual behaviour for a Jay and I’m waiting to hear what the RSPB think on the subject.

  1. A chilling story, and suspensefully recounted.
    I never heard that about Jays, but am quite prepared to regard them as murderers, already knowing them as greedy, noisy, aggressive, and belligerent. Just an hour ago I watched a bobcat make his deliberate muscled way across our back yard into the neighbor’s. Any small birds around, or even larger birds like the Jay, might have met the same fate as your neighborhood sparrow.
    Death in the afternoon, indeed, without fanfare.

    1. Hi Judith – you see, that’s where it’s a bit odd. Our Jays are normally quite secretive and more likely to rob by stealth. They certainly don’t advertise themselves like Carrion Crows or Rooks. So it seems like an unusual piece of behaviour.

      Bobcats! Wow, I’ve read about those. I believe they can be quite aggressive towards humans! Yes, – we don’t want to cross his path ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. I have never heard of a Jay, anywhere, to have predator tendencies. Cold killers, eh? I think that would have been upsetting to see. We frequently see a small hawk sweep through and take out a dove or small backyard bird at the feeder, and that really bothers me, even though the hawk was following its instinct. I would probably be traumatized by a Jay. ๐Ÿ™‚ This was so interesting, Martin. What a story!

    1. Hi Debra – I was slightly upset, probably because of the speed with which it happened, but rationality quickly set in. Jays predatory behaviour usually consists of raiding unguarded nests – I’d never heard of one killing an adult bird before, though I guess it happens only occasionally and perhaps has escaped reporting for that reason. Jays are opportunists like the rest of the Corvids and will try anything that looks edible!

  3. I’ve never seen murder in action, I would’ve been pretty excited to witness that, its so “National Geographic” lol ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Hi Abby – it is an exciting experience to witness such an event at close quarters. Whilst I’m sorry to lose one of our Sparrows, I appreciate that the Jay needs to feed too! Yesterday I was enjoying the prettier side of nature – a tree full of Great Tit adults and their chicks as well as a Blue Tit family too in my back garden ๐Ÿ™‚ Jay is off seeking food elsewhere.

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