The English oak, Quercus robur, our national tree, has lots of admirers but only one “best friend”, the jay Garrulus glandarius – which roughly means the “chattering acorn gatherer”.
This month jays have been busy stripping hundreds of acorns off a nearby oak and carefully burying them for future consumption in lawns, flowerbeds and handy crevices. The jays are credited with remembering where all the acorns are but each spring oak saplings appear all over the neighbourhood, so some were either not needed or forgotten.
But there is another possibility. Experts have observed the jays returning to newly growing saplings in the spring. They pull the plant upwards and remove the fleshy primal leaves that unfold as the first roots go down, but leave the rest of the sapling untouched. The jay is said to feed these nutritious first leaves, known as cotyledons, to their young. Most of the saplings apparently survive this rough treatment.
Jays are now much more numerous than when gamekeepers attempted to exterminate them in the 19th century and so the English oak has a much brighter future too. Next time you see a sapling growing in the middle of a field or hedgerow a long way from any possible parent it will probably be the work of the oak tree’s chattering friend.