Many apologies for our sluggishness in getting a new post out to you. Here in southern Colorado as in the rest of the country it’s summer and hard at times to sit down at the computer. Even with high temps and smokey skies from the fires blazing all around, we’ve been busy photographing the backyard birds. One of the many is the Pinyon Jay and with their flock numbers, they are a dominant presence………..
Forty, fifty, seventy birds form a long undulating dragon of life moving through the sky silently and arriving, they fall through the air with the sound of wind over rock or through tall pines. Sometimes even while feeding they will remain quiet but more commonly they will call to one another with the raucous yelling that even at a distance you would know there were jays about. Pinyon Jays (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) or the piñoneros have a fairly small repertoire of sounds, not all are uncomfortable to hear and they have a trill that is almost magic. These are western birds unique to the drier evergreen forests of the Pinyon-Juniper zone, known as the PJ and are found from southern Montana to New Mexico, west to California and Oregon. Here in Colorado they are not found out on the eastern plains or in the big mountain parks like South Park and the San Luis Valley nor much above 8,000 ft but they do occur in the west of the state wherever there are pinyons or junipers and from about Chaffee County south to New Mexico and east almost to Kansas.
If you live in the PJ and feed birds during the winter as we do, then you probably know these jays and their amazing ability to eat or at least carry off a lot of seed. We affectionately call them “little blue pigs.” While like most jays they are omnivores and forage for many different seeds, insects, fruits and anything else that they can subdue, including the eggs from other bird’s nests and even snatch the occasional lizard. They depend on the Pinyon Pine and as cones mature, on sometimes widely separate trees these jays move in communal flocks from one Pinyon nut banquet to the next. In some areas with few pinyons, the Juniper becomes a primary food source. Pinyon Jays cache huge numbers of pine nuts, a good-sized flock will cache literally several million. Like all Corvids (the Family to which all Jays, Crows, Ravens and Magpies belong) they have amazing memories and along with the Clark’s Nutcracker, Pinyon Jays are considered among the best. Although, not all of those caches are retrieved for a variety of reasons, those few missed nuts or seeds help re-seed Pinyon and Juniper forests.
They nest communally as well, among junipers, gambel oak, pinyons and even taller ponderosa pines with individual nest sites, one to rarely three per tree. Courtship starts in winter with nesting starting as early as February and continuing into May. Communal living has many benefits, help with feeding young, and certainly more eyes to detect predators. Pinyon Jays will have “look outs” whose sole job is to watch for predators and they do not join in foraging, allowing the feeding birds more time to feed. Should a hawk or owl be discovered, Pinyon Jays like other jays will mob the unfortunate predator and drive it away. Of course if you are one of fifty individuals you are less likely to end up as a hawk dinner than if you were a solitary bird or in a much smaller group.
Communal feeding includes fledglings, these soft gray birds with a touch of blue are easy to tell from the adults as they are rarely quiet. With vibrating wings and open pink-lined mouths the constantly begging birds hound the nearest adult until they are fed. That doesn’t end the very noisy begging as these seemingly insatiable kids move to the next adult and continue the process. Pinyon Jay adults take care of the young regardless of who the actual parents are. As the young jays mature they eventually stop the begging and become members of the community.
The females continue the soft gray and blue coloration of the younger birds. The males are slightly darker with a brighter blue face and a soft smoky gray throat shot through with blue. They can be quite striking especially during breeding season. The blue coloration of birds is interesting in that it is a structural color, not the same as a pigment color or iridescence that can change depending on the angle light strikes it. Blue is blue no matter the angle it is viewed from.
When watching Pinyon Jays searching for food two things are obvious, the long straight bill which is perfect for fishing pinyon nuts out of the cone, caching seeds or probing the ground. The other is that they walk. They don’t hop about like other jays, they stride like a crow. The social Pinyon-Juniper natives, whether walking or flying, quiet or clamorous, are endlessly fascinating and add another welcome connection to our hills and valleys.
© Larry Kimball photos by Larry Kimball & Barbara Magnuson