Saplings grow from hidden acorns

Jay BTO - Jill Pakenham
Jay BTO - Jill Pakenham
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We have a small oak sapling growing in a plant pot just outside the kitchen window. Although the nearest oak tree must be at least 300 metres away I am pretty sure I know how the acorn made its way across two fields and into the garden – there was a jay involved.

It’s not an isolated tree either – there’s one the same height a few metres away.

Jay BTO - Jill Pakenham

Jay BTO - Jill Pakenham

In previous years I have found them in the flower borders and even coming up in the lawn.

This autumn I have already seen one tell-tale hole where acorns have been buried in the soft turf.

Jays are oak tree specialists. In October sunlight these pinkish birds with their smart caps and distinctive blue wing-flashes are at their most obvious, flying to and fro to collect acorns which they then store for the winter.

Look out for a flying bird that’s bigger than a blackbird and smaller than a woodpigeon and check out its white rump. Once you get your eye in, you may well notice that your local birds have bulging throats when they fly one way and not on the way back. It is estimated that, by fitting up to four acorns in its gullet and holding an extra one in its beak, a jay can transport and plant 3,000 acorns in a month.

These are clever birds so they are able to find a lot of their cached food supplies as autumn turns to winter.

It looks as if acorns may be in short supply this year, at least in some areas, and birdwatchers have been reporting that there are lots of jays on the move.

A BTO colleague saw a steady trickle of birds flying west out of Thetford Forest last month and flocks have been reported on the coast, the biggest count being a passage of 668 over Hunstanton on October 6. There is some speculation that some jays may be arriving from the continent, but it is more likely that dispersing birds are following the coast south, in search of areas with acorn-laden oak trees.

Although they are acorn specialists in the autumn, jays turn their attention to birds’ eggs in the summer.

This did not make them popular with game-keepers, which may explain why they were generally thought of as being quite secretive birds. The azure-blue wing-feathers are prized by many salmon fishers, who use them when making their own flies, an activity that puts a monetary value on a shot bird.

These days, jays are becoming more confiding, frequently visiting peanut feeders as well as using gardens as safe storage locations for acorns.

Next time you see a young oak tree in your garden, you will know where it came from.

 For more information about the British Trust for Ornithology , which has its headquarters at The Nunnery, in Thetford, visit

next time: The success story of the little egret.