Jay’s squawk scarier than the tiger’s roar

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THE grass underfoot was wet with dew. I placed each step with the utmost precision; no dry twigs, no patch of gravel.

There was silence all around. I knew I was being watched, but I could not tell from where the stare came.

The tiger was patient, enduring, confident he could outsmart his prey. The tall grass hid his enormous form, the rocks and boulders played to his advantage. The rising sun flickered through the branches above, lighting up the golden pasture, playing with the blanket of dappled light as it spread.

The animal’s stripes, designed to blend in with this exact habitat, made him invisible.

As I moved painstakingly slowly, even the delicate breeze through the leaves seemed to cease. I froze. Absolute silence.

The hairs on my neck rose. I could smell what I knew awaited me in the long grass. An unmistakable trace of carnivorous breath.

He had sprung his trap and I had walked right into it. There was no escape now. I braced myself for the rush, but as I did so, entertained some dim illusion that I could still back out of this predicament, this dark and menacing corner of being. I inched backward.

Suddenly a scream erupted from above. I shot skywards, visibly jumping a couple of inches in pure terror. Then he came. In barely a single bound he was upon me. Leaping and stretching, his paws spread like a gruesome sports glove, flecked with blood and fringed with meat hooks, designed to grip, puncture and tear. I closed my eyes. It was all over.

When I re-opened them I found Boris purring through the wire netting. He was besides himself with joy. He had outsmarted me again and in so doing, given me the fright of my life. Boris was a Siberian tiger and, although not yet fully grown, was the most impressive animal I had ever known.

During my time working at Whipsnade Zoo, I got to know the tigers on my early morning walks around the park and the stalking game with Boris a firm favourite on my daily rounds. He always won of course, but that’s what made him such a perfect hunter.

But what about that scream. The most terrifying moment of this morning’s game had not come from Boris’s inevitable charge, but from a bird in a tree above us.

It was a jay; an elusive, canny and incredibly alert bird that is famed for giving away the presence of any fox, stoat, human hunter or indeed, tiger. Not only do they have an annoying habit of betraying one’s purposeful, measured whereabouts in the woods, but they also have a knack of frightening the life out of you when you’re least expecting their squawks of alarm.

Jays join the long list of corvids, usually hated by farmers, game keepers and animal lovers, for they take the occasional young bird, be it a blue tit, quail or partridge, to supplement their brood’s ravenous diet.

However at this time of year they can be appreciated at ground level as they join squirrels in hoarding their annual supplies of fallen acorns from their local oak tree.

To my beleaguered neighbours, Keith and Claudia, they may appear something of a God-send, in theory helping them to reduce the bag and bin-fulls of acorns laboriously scooped up day-in, day-out from their garden at this time of the year. In reality, they continue to be drowned in the fruits and bombarded day and night by falling fragments.

Squirrels and jays may not be the most popular creatures, but you would appreciate an army of them if you had a giant oak tree in your back garden!

Join Ben for the biggest Wildlife Event of the Year at Alexandra Palace, London, on October 14-15.