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This fascinating jay is highly gregarious, typically seen in flocks even during the breeding season. When foraging, several birds serve as look-outs for predators. When alarmed, they gather into a compact group and fly off to cover. On the ground, they walk, rather than hop, like a crow.
Unmistakable in appearance, the Pinyon Jay is distinctively uniform blue-gray overall. The tail is short, but the wings are relatively long. The bill fine and sharply pointed.
Pinyon Jays are distributed primarily through the Great Basin of the west-central United States. Some birds disperse farther into the interior. Although the population overall is considered stable, numbers fluctuate drastically from year to year. Not a migratory species, but is nomadic. They will stay in areas where cone crops are good, but may wander far and wide, particularly in the non-breeding seasons. During years when populations irrupt, birds may move as far east as western Texas, north to southern Washington, even British Columbia, and south to north-west Mexico. Audubon Colorado has identified the Rabbit Valley Recreation Management Area as an Important Bird Area that supports a breeding population of at least 30 Pinyon Jays. Breeding Bird Survey trend analyses show a significant rangewide decline of 4.3% per year from 1966-2001.
They are found on dry mountain slopes and foothills; under normal environmental conditions, they are rarely found away from pinyon-juniper forests. During years when the pinyon crop fails, the jays may be seen in streamside groves, oak woods, and elsewhere. Pinyon Jays are colonial breeders, but only one or sometimes two or three pairs, nest in a single tree. Breeding season varies from year to year, but eggs have been recorded from February to October. The nest is a cup of grass, bark strips, and pine needles, built on a platform of twigs and bark fibers. It is situated three to six feet up in a juniper, pine, or oak. Clutch size is four to five, at times, three to six. Diet consists of mainly of pinyon pine seeds, but also eats the seeds of other pines and plants, as well as nuts, berries, insects, and small fruits.
Year-to-year dramatic population fluctuations, combined with specific habitat requirements, puts this species at risk, especially from habitat loss and degradation and forest fragmentation. This species may be particularly susceptible to losses and fragmentation of habitat from logging and development. Fire suppression in some areas may have contributed to dense pinyon pine forests that are not preferred by Pinyon Jays.
Little conservation action has been directly focused on this species. Colorado Partners In Flight suggests pinyon-juniper forests should be managed for large mature trees to provide adequate food resources for Pinyon Jays and that because they are sensitive to human disturbance, roads and trails should not built in known or potential nesting areas. Regular fires to reduce ground level fuel loads may help prevent hotter fires that kill pinyon pines. Management of pinyon-juniper habitats in many areas is focused on maintaining or increasing big game populations but the effect of this type of management on Pinyon Jay populations is not well-understood and should be examined.
What Can You Do?
Audubon and our partners in conservation coordinated the submission of over two million comments to the U.S. Forest Service in support of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which would protect habitat for Pinyon Jay and many other species. Unfortunately, implementation of the Rule has been stalled and attempts are being made to weaken it. To help in protecting these vital habitats visit: http://www.audubon.org/campaign/latestnews.html#roadless
Audubon?s Important Bird Area program is a vital tool for the conservation of Pinyon Jay as well as other species. To learn more about the Important Bird Area programs in states with breeding populations of Pinyon Jay, and how you can help, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/
Support local land trusts, government agencies, and other organizations working to preserve pinyon-juniper habitat in your area. Contact your state Important Bird Areas coordinator (http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/state_coords.html) to find out if there are sites in your area important for Pinyon Jay that need increased protection.
Information on where Pinyon Jay occur and in what numbers is vital to conserving the species. Help in monitoring this and other species by reporting your sightings to eBird. A project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is the world?s first comprehensive on-line bird monitoring program: http://www.audubon.org/bird/ebird/index.html
Volunteers are crucial to the success of programs that monitor the long-term status of populations of Pinyon Jays and other bird species. Audubon?s Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of the longest-running citizen-science monitoring programs in the world and has helped to follow changes in the numbers and distribution of Pinyon Jay. To learn more about the CBC and how you can participate, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc
BirdLife International (2006) Species factsheet: Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus, Pinyon Jay http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=5685&m=0
Colorado Partners In Flight. 2000. Http://rmb.wantjava.com/bcp/phy87/pj/pija.jsp
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA.
Madge, Steve and Hilary Burn. 1994. Crows and Jays. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.