Pinyon jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus)
|Size||Length: 26 – 29 cm (2)|
Wingspan: 46 cm (2)
|Weight||90 – 120 g (2)|
Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).
A member of the crow family, the pinyon jay is a highly social bird with a truly remarkable memory (3) (4). Although the body and head are uniform in colour, the pinyon jay can appear to be a variety of blue shades due to the way light is reflected from its feathers (4). The eyes are dark brown, the legs and feet are black, and the tail is relatively short. The adult male and female are generally similar in appearance, although the male has a darker crown and longer bill, while the juveniles are a dull, grey colour (2). The genus name of the pinyon jay, Gymnorhinus, means “naked nostrils”, a reference to the fact that, unlike most other corvids, the nostrils of its bill are not covered by feathers (2). Bill shape is long and pointed, but varies according to geographical region, with birds found in the northern part of its range having shorter and thinner bills than those in the south-western regions (4). The pinyon jay makes a variety of noises, but its typical call is a high, nasal ‘caw’ (2).
The pinyon jay is widely distributed throughout the foothills and mountainous regions of the western and south-western regions of the USA. At its northern end, the pinyon jay’s range runs from central Oregon, east to western South Dakota, extending southwards, on the western side, all the way to southern California and Arizona and, on the eastern side, through Wyoming and Colorado down to New Mexico (3). In years when food is scarce, large flocks will travel long distances, and have been found as far as western Texas, Mexico and even British Columbia (5).
The pinyon jay occupies forest composed predominantly of pinyon pines and junipers, located in the region between lowland desert scrub and pine forests of the upper mountain slopes (4). This species can also be found occupying other habitats such as sagebrush, scrub oak woodland and higher-altitude ponderosa pine forests (6).
The pinyon jay’s common name derives from its close association with the pinyon pine, a collective name for a number of pine species bearing cones that produce edible seeds (2). In late August, when the pinyon seeds begin to ripen, the jays start foraging, skilfully extracting the seeds using their long, pointed beaks. Having bare nostrils allows the jays to probe deep into the pine cone using the entire length of their bill, avoiding the problem of feathers becoming fouled by the sticky pine-resin exuded by the cone. Once the cones fully mature and the seeds become exposed, the pinyon jays commence their amazing, food-caching behaviour. After evaluating whether the seeds are good, they break the seed coat open by pounding it with their bill and then swallow the kernel. Storing about four to five of these seeds in their expandable oesophagus, the jays then fly to a communal cache site, usually between one and five kilometres away from the main colony, where they bury the seeds in loose soil. Studies of pinyon jays in New Mexico found that a group of 250 birds managed to cache an incredible four and a half million seeds in one season (4). Using their phenomenal spatial memories, the birds are able to find many of these subterranean seed stores again, even under a covering of snow, which supply them with the nutrition and energy to be able to start their breeding season in the winter (3).
The pinyon jay is normally found in large, loose communal flocks of around 250 birds, with a distinct social hierarchy, and form extensive nesting colonies during the breeding season (3). Breeding pairs are established following courtship around November and generally remain together for life (6). Both sexes in the pair work to create a fairly bulky, well-insulated nest from twigs, shredded grass and other available materials (2) (7). Three to four eggs are laid and incubated by the female, while the male joins a feeding flock, returning regularly to supply the female with food (7). After about 16 days the eggs hatch, and for the first ten days the nestlings are brooded by the female, until capable of maintaining their body temperature (6). After this time, the young gather into communal crèches of hundreds of individuals, where they continue to be fed by both parent birds. Such behaviour may serve as an anti-predator mechanism, since it allows for continual guarding of the nest by adults, while the others forage. The pinyon jay is relatively long-lived with adults reaching up to 16 years in the wild (2).
The key threat to the pinyon jay is the loss of pinyon-juniper forest, with which its life-history is so intrinsically linked. In the past, the main source of this habitat loss was through the clearance of the forest for firewood, lumber and, in particular, to convert the land into pasture for grazing livestock (3) (6). Today, clearance for pasture persists in many regions, and is compounded by widespread urban expansion (6).
Along with deliberate forest clearance, forest fires are also a threat to the pinyon jay’s habitat. A long-standing policy to put out all forest fires as quickly as possible has led to large amounts of vegetation accumulating because the smaller, natural wildfires that would have kept this growth under control were prevented (6). In the late 1990s, this accumulated vegetation resulted in massive, uncontrolled wildfires consuming vast areas of forest (3). To stop this reoccurring, current fire prevention policies involve widespread thinning of pinyon-juniper forest, which reduces wild fires, but removes sources of food and nesting sites for the pinyon jay (3) (6). In addition to these factors, large areas of pinyon pine have, as a result of drought, suffered from infestation by the pinyon engraver beetle, which in some localities has caused up to 90 percent of the trees to die (6).
Although there are no current land management practices in place to protect the pinyon jay’s habitat, it is on the watch lists of the conservation organisations The National Audubon Society (5) and Partners in Flight (8). The Colorado branch of Partners in Flight has recommended that the pinyon-juniper habitat be managed so that during forest thinning, the older, cone-bearing pinyon pines are left and the younger trees selectively removed so that food sources for the pinyon jay remain available (9). There is also a need to protect this species’ nesting areas from urban development, discouraging the building of roads nearby, which results in nest abandonment due to disturbance (6). While estimates of the pinyon jay’s population totalled a substantial 4,100,000 birds in 2003, this population is believed to be rapidly declining by an average of almost four percent per year. It is, therefore, critical that land management practices are introduced that will help to protect this remarkable bird (3).
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For more information on this and other bird species please see:
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- Corvids: of the family Corvidae, which includes crows, jays, magpies, nutcrackers and rooks.
- Genus: a category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
- Nestlings: birds that are still too young to leave the nest.
- Thinning: A forest or woodland management practice, whereby tree density is decreased by removing a number of trees from the region.
IUCN Red List (September, 2008)
Balda, R.P. (2002) Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus). In: Poole, A. (Ed) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
BirdLife International (September, 2008)
- Lanner, R.M. (1996) Made for Each Other. A Symbiosis of Birds and Pines. Oxford University Press, New York.
National Audubon Society (September, 2008)
Wiggins, D.A. (2005) Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus): a technical conservation assessment. USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region. Available at:
- Harrison, H.H. (1979) A Field Guide to Western Birds' Nests. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.
Partners in Flight (September, 2008)
Colorado Partners in Flight (September, 2008)