Jay the ripper

Eurasian jay

Meet “Jay” the ripper… Credit: Yalakom

The past couple of days have been rough for the great tit couple that nests in front of my apartment building. An Eurasian jay viciously hunted down several of their fledglings, killing at least two and injuring three. Knowing Eurasian jays prey on great and blue tit chicks is one thing, witnessing the brutal hunt is another. I had never suspected my spring watch would take such a dramatic turn.

The great tits built their nest inside a street lamp post, 2.5 meters off the ground, a smart choice in an urban environment where nesting cavities are scarce. I kept an eye and ear on the nest to try guessing when the chicks would fledge, always a special moment to attend.

Two days ago, I was awoken by a concert of alarm calls. Two great tits were flying in circle around a high branch of the large oak tree that stands across from my window. A jay soon came in sight squeezing a bulky catch in its beak. Seconds later, I heard an excruciating scream: something had just been killed and it was probably a fledgling.

I found feathers and down under the tree, but it is not until half an hour later that I had confirmation: the jay returned to the old oak to pluck and devour the dead chick a few meters from its helpless parents and their nest.

The scene repeated the next morning while I was down observing the remaining chicks fledge.

At least five chicks fledged at about the same time that morning and could be seen all over the place clumsily hopping and flying around in search of a safe spot. A few of them momentarily gathered at the bicycle parking across from their nesting site. For a while the parents seemed to have the situation under control and came to feed their chicks fresh caterpillars.

Here are some photographs I took of some of the babies.

Peace did not last long: the jay soon arrived and began stalking the chicks. Ubiquitous and tireless, it didn’t stop until it caught one. The parents immediately went after it uttering loud “chicka” alarm calls. Remarkably, other tits partook in the tumultuous chase, a total of six brave little birds united against a common enemy—four great tits and two blue tits (there are two more nests close by). Even a blackbird couple seemed to briefly join the thundering defense league.

The jay first checked the lamp post. There, it attacked one fledgling that could luckily escape with no more damage than some down pulled off its chest. The jay then flew to the bicycle parking while I was photographing the chicks. In my town, Eurasian jays are normally shy around humans, but this one was now fairly indifferent to my presence: the excitement of the hunt was clearly stronger than its distrust of humans. No fledglings were caught from the bikes, but as they moved on to trees, they became more vulnerable. The jay snatched one from a branch, but the frantic defense league forced it to drop its prey on the ground. Obviously in shock, the chick was nonetheless quick to vanish in the bushes. Moments later, the jay grabbed another one, but again had to drop it on the ground. This time the young looked really unwell. It laid on its back, bill open and legs in the air, as if paralyzed, so I took it in my hand. Meanwhile, the predator had assaulted a third fledgling and this time had it for good. Triumphant, the jay flew away, its lunch in its beak.

Apologies for the terrible quality of the hunting images below but you get the idea. The jay was high in the trees, the weather was grey and for the two first photos, I had the chick already in hand!

I brought the chick home and placed it on a sofa. The minuscule bird had respiration problems—it breathed through its open bill instead of its nostrils—and was heavily falling to its right side. I gave it support with a book and, placing a plastic straw over its bill, blew in some oxygen. The right leg looked cramped, so I first thought it was broken, but as time passed (about 2h), the frail bird could progressively use it again and eventually stand upright on a branch or finger. It also breathed normally again.

However, it was drowsy, somewhat lethargic, and only intermittently conscious. I had to gently shake it to bring it back to reality for a few seconds. For many hours, the chick neither made a sound nor asked for food, which made it hard to feed it. Could it be that the chick was in deep shock after the violent attack?

I brought it back outside in the afternoon hoping a change of scenery would wake it and its parents would come feed it. The fledgling finally uttered timid begging calls and ate a little from my hand, but remained too quiet for its parents to see it. Although the location was inconvenient, I moved the chick close to a small tree where the mother was foraging (she is easily recognizable, see above images). She patiently observed me placing her young on a low branch and came to feed it at once, while I was still standing there. It was very comforting.

After a couple feeds, the chick hopped its way up to the top of the tree—out of my reach. Both parents fed it a few times, but soon the baby looked apathetic again and rarely called. The mother insisted upon feeding it a few times, shaking it in her own way, but the chick hardly reacted.

I cannot tell if the chick lived through the night, but some of the chicks definitely made it since the parents were actively carrying food around yesterday and today (they often come to my feeder for food).

Location: Bayreuth, Germany


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17 thoughts on “Jay the ripper

  1. Hi Rick, thank you for reading & feedback, really appreciated!

    Very interesting what you’re saying about blackbirds. I’ve noticed they’re very scared of magpies here too! I wonder if the magpies only eat the eggs or also the nestlings…

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  2. Hello Eduardo, thanks very much for reading and your nice comment! Agreed, hard to see it happen, the babies are so vulnerable, helpless and hardly get the chance to live outside of the nest for more than a few minutes. It was amazing though to see live predation, very impressive even when the prey and predator are so small. Stunning photos from Costa-Rica on your website. Planning a visit there in the future.

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  3. Wow! I didn’t know that jays preyed upon other birds, they seem to have the wrong type of bill to be fully carnivorous? Did the jay actually eat the fledgelings?
    You really do put a lot of effort into these stories, very impressive!

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  4. True, their bill doesn’t look so sharp, but crows/magpies either and they still eat meat. The jay definitely ate the babies, you can see he has some flesh in his bill on one of the (very bad!) pictures of him. He plucked one just above my head and then ate it, macabre… I think he kills them by shaking them or maybe hitting them on the branch, I’m not sure really. They’re so frail, they can be killed easily.

    Thanks for your kind comment Le 😉

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  5. Hey Joe, thx for reading the story, really appreciated. These little fluffballs are so vulnerable when they leave the nest, such easy preys to catch & kill for the jays… very cruel from a human perspective!

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  6. what a beautiful story and great photos, too! I hoped that youngster survived. Jays seem to behave in that same predatory way here, too, with the smaller songbirds. thankfully, we have never seen any in our backyard.

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  7. Thanks for your kind feedback! Yes, jays are fierce predators tho they may not look like it until you surprise them fetching a fledgling and devouring it… are you speaking about blue jays?

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  8. yes, I mean Blue Jays. I don’t know if Steller’s Jays are aggressive like that. I can’t imagine Canada Jays (Whiskeyjacks) being aggressive towards smaller birds, though — they are far too cute! 🙂

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