Pinyon Jay

On the wild side—October, 2012

by Tina Mitchell

I have a confession to make.  Pinyon Jays drive me crazy.  I know, I know.  All species are important.  Each one fills a special and critical niche.  Our precious pinyon pines depend on Pinyon Jays for replanting.  I can recite the whole spiel, chapter and verse.  But still—Pinyon Jays drive me crazy.  I hear their maniacal calls slicing through the air and I grit my teeth.  Our area can be visited—nay, invaded—by massive Pinyon Jay flocks during some, but not all, late summers and early falls.  Good luck keeping your sunflower seed feeders stocked.  This fall, we’ve had just a moderate invasion in our area, with flocks at our house numbering in the scores.  In 2010, we had huge flocks of noisy, boisterous, jostling juvenile Pinyon Jays at our feeders for 16 weeks straight—16 WEEKS!!!  One day, we counted more than 125 individuals covering the ground, hanging from the trees, peering in the windows, casing the joint…  We took down all but the smallest of our feeders.  And even then, when these blue-gray hordes descended, I took in those feeders until the crowd departed.  I never knew why they’d come and I never knew why they’d leave.  No use trying to shoo them away or chase them out of the trees.  They’d just utter those maniacal, mocking, laughing calls.

As I said, Pinyon Jays drive me crazy.

However, Pinyon Jays are often a much-sought-after species by birders, since they are true habitat specialists.  Living predominantly in the Great Basin region of the west, this jay looks more like a small blue-gray crow than it does other jay species.  Crestless, unlike the deep-blue Steller’s Jay, and smaller than the resident Western Scrub-Jay in our area, it has a long, sturdy beak, a slender body, and a very short tail (especially compared to the Scrub-Jays).  Males and females look very similar:  Except for a lighter throat and a slightly darker blue head on the males, the bird sports a uniform dusty blue-gray color.

Appropriately named, the Pinyon Jay’s diet relies heavily on pinyon pine seeds and its distribution reflects the extent of pinyon/juniper habitat.  At the edges of their range, where pinyons tend to be more scarce, they also use juniper habitat, consuming juniper berries in lieu of pinyon seeds.  In Colorado, Pinyon Jays live southwest of a diagonal line stretching from the northwest to the southeast corner of the state, with the greatest densities found at altitudes between 5,000 and 8,000 feet.

Pinyon Jays and pinyon pines have evolved as co-dependents.  In summers of plenty, the jays harvest tremendous quantities of pinyon seeds and cache them in the ground.  The jays have an amazing ability to remember and recover the vast majority of these seeds, but they always miss a few.  Hence, new pinyon pine sprouts get a chance to develop in a different area.   But in addition to a heavy dependence on pinyon seeds, Pinyon Jays also eat seeds of other pines, wild berries and small fruits, nuts, waste grains and cultivated seeds (such as the sunflower seeds in feeders), arthropods such as insects and spiders, lizards, and bird eggs and nestlings.  Pinyon Jays don’t typically migrate from their often-large territories, but they can travel far and wide—sometimes hundreds of miles—if the pinyon crop in their territory fails.

As is true for many of the Corvid family (all jays as well as crows and ravens), Pinyon Jay pairs often maintain bonds throughout the year.  As a result, they can begin nesting as early as February—one of the earliest nesting songbird species in the U.S.  Both parents help to construct the nest—naturally, typically in a pinyon pine and often on the south side of a tree to catch the winter sun.  These stunningly gregarious birds nest in colonies containing several dozen pairs.  A typical clutch of 3 – 5 eggs hatches in 16 or 17 days; both adults feed the nestlings, who then fledge after about 3 weeks.  Young fledglings from various nests gather in “crèches,” where they wait for food from their parents.  As the flying skills of the young birds improve, these crèches begin to move as a vast, noisy, rowdy, ravenous flock.  Since juvenile birds are grayer than the adults, you can identify such a crèche by the preponderance of grayish birds.  Most individual spend the flock into which they were born.  The few that immigrate—most often, 1st-year females—usually just move to neighboring flocks.

The scientific name of the Pinyon Jay is Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus.  As the sole member of its genus, the genus name means “naked beak” (from Greek gymnos, naked, and rino, nostrils), referring to its large exposed nostrils.  The species name refers to the slightly darker blue head most obvious on the male, (kyanos, dark blue, and kephale, head).  The precise origin of the common name “jay” is uncertain, but onomatopoeia of the call (especially for the call of a Blue Jay) is oft-cited as one possibility.

This year, our area has had a much smaller invasion of Pinyon Jays, especially compared to the onslaught of 2010, that began in late August.  And most years, you might hear a few calls as small groups check out the pinyon pines in our area.  But for me, just one bird uttering a call, even from far away, brings back memories of the onslaught of the fall of 2010.  Seriously—Pinyon Jays drive me crazy.

For more information and to hear a clip of that mind-numbing, angst-provoking call, type in this address:  http://wp.me/P16Ptu-c6.  (Be sure to type in this short link just as it appears, since it is case-sensitive.

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