Pinon pines and Pinyon Jays are each important to the other. The jay helps disperse the seeds of the pines through its prodigious caching of seeds, and the pine seeds provide the jay with important food during the winter months. If the seeds crop is poor, Pinyon Jays can disperse outside of their normal range in winter.
Pinyon Jays occur in flocks year-round that may number hundreds of birds. Territories are not defended, though nesting material is protected. Pairs mate for life, and Pinyon Jays can live to be well over 10 years old.
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Description of the Pinyon Jay
The Pinyon Jay is plain blue, brightest on the head and face, with a short tail. Length: 10 in. Wingspan: 19 in.
Seasonal change in appearance
Similar to adults, but paler.
Pinyon Jays occur, as their name implies, in pinyon-juniper woodlands.
Pinyon Jays eat the seeds of pinyon pines, as well as other plant seeds, insects, fruits, and nuts.
Pinyon Jays forage on the ground as well as in trees, and are usually seen in flocks.
Pinyon Jays occur in parts of the western U.S. Their population has declined in recent decades.
Bent Life History
Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Pinyon Jay.
Pinyon Jays cache large numbers of pinyon seeds for later retrieval, and are skilled at remembering cache locations, even when they are under snow cover.
Pinyon Jays are nomadic, and may occur outside of their normal range in the fall and winter.
The variety of calls given by Pinyon Jays include a “hoy hoy hoy”.
Mexican Jays are much paler underneath.
Mountain Bluebirds are much smaller with smaller bills.
Western Scrub-Jays are white below with gray backs and have longer tails.
The nest is a foundations of twigs with a cup of grass, bark, and pine needles. It is usually placed 3-20 feet above the ground in a tree. Pinyon Jays usually nest in colonies.
Number: Usually lay 3-5 eggs.
Color: Bluish-green with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 16-17 days, and leave the nest in another 21 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Pinyon Jay
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Pinyon Jay – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
CYANOCEPHALUS CYANOCEPHALUS (Wied)
“Maximilian’s jay,” as it was called by some of the earlier writers, “was discovered and first described by that eminent naturalist Maximilian, Prince of Wied, in his book of travels in North America, published in 1841,” according to Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1874). “Mr. Edward Kern, who was connected with Colonel Fremont’s exploring expedition in 1846, was the first to bring specimens of this interesting and remarkable bird to the notice of American naturalists, transmitting them to the Philadelphia Academy.” The bird is now known to have a wide range in the Rocky Mountain region and in the Sierras and Cascades, farther west, breeding chiefly in the pinyon and juniper belt, but wandering erratically over much of the intervening and adjacent regions at other seasons.
Blue crow, a common local name, seems most appropriate for this bird, as it greatly resembles these birds in many of its actions and babits. Its blue color gives it its closest resemblance to a jay, but its short tail and its highly gregarious habits, together with its nomadic tendencies, are hardly jaylike. Its systematic position seenis to ally it more closely with the crows than with the jays.
The foothills and lower mountain ranges, where the slopes are covered with a scattered growth of nut pines or pinyons (Pinus edulis) and junipers (Juniperus occidentalis), with perhaps an undergrowth of sagebrush, are the favorite haunts of the pinyon jay, especially during the breeding season. Here large straggling flocks of these short-tailed blue crows may be seen trailing over these stunted open forests, looking for their favorite food in the nut pines, or building their nests in the low trees. But they may be here today and gone tomorrow in their restless wanderings.
Migration: The pinyon jay throughout most of its range is not really a migratory species, though it has been reported in flights that looked like migrations. These flights, which occur in both spring and fall, seem to have no definite north or south direction at either season but are quite as often seen moving either east or west, or in other directions. These are probably not migrations in the strict sense of the word but rather mass movements to or from breeding grounds or from one feeding ground to another. The fact that the birds fly in large flocks, and often for a long time in one direction, leads to the impression that they are migrating. There is, however, a limited migration in the northern portion of its range, where Bendire (1895) says that it is “only a summer visitor, migrating regularly”
Nesting: Pinyon jays prefer to breed in large or small colonies on the foothills or mountain slopes below 9,000 feet, placing their nests in the pinyons, where they straggle down the slopes toward the desert scrub areas, or in junipers, which grow in such places, or in scrub oaks; the nests are usually not more than 10 or 12 feet from the ground and often lower, though James B. Dixon tells me that “one colony had nests high in the pines, 25 to 50 feet off the ground.” J. C. Braly (1931) found a large colony nesting near Grandview, Oreg., of which he says: “These nests were all in small junipers from three to seven feet above the ground. During our investigations [elsewhere ?1 we found over fifty nests of these birds, the great majority in juniper trees from three to eighteen feet up, while a few nests were found in yellow pine trees up to eighty-five feet.” Sometimes three occupied nests were found in one tree.
In Dawson County, Mont., E. S. Cameron (1907) saw no evidence of these birds breeding in colonies and found only two nests, one of which he describes as follows:
The pair were first noted to be carrying twigs on May 19, at which date the nest was about half-finished, both birds assisting in its construction. Without the guidance of the birds it is unlikely that I should have found the nest at all, placed, as it was, near the extremity of a thick pine bough and completely screened from observation except from above within the tree. The nest was of large size with a smaller interior cup, the whole of the exterior, together with a platform on which the cup rested, being composed entirely of dead greasewood sticks and a few rootlets. The width across the sticks was 14 inches, and the height of the nest 8 inches. The cup was very strongly made of dead grass, pulled by the birds into a material like tow, and so thickly matted together, that it remained intact when nearly all the surrounding sticks had been blown away. Some dead thistle leaves were woven into the rim. The inner cup was S3~ inches in diameter and 2Y2 inches deep.
Mrs. Bailey (1928) says that the nests are “deep, bulky, and compactly built, with a framework of twigs and shreds of bark supporting the deep, well felted cup; made variously of finer shreds of bark, plant fibers, fine rootlets, weeds, wool, hair, dry grass, and a few feathers”
She mentions a few nests found by J. Stokley Ligon in New Mexico: “He says they nest generally from March 1-31, in gray live oaks among the pinyons, though oc~asionally in pinyons, even where the oaks can be had. * * * On February 17, while the ground was still half covered with snow, on the southwest side of Black Mountain in the Datil Forest, at about 7,500 feet he found one nest about complete and others under construction, in scattered scrub oaks on a steep grassy canyon side. There were more than fifty birds in pairs and flocks mingling and scattering and flying about noisily. On March 3, he returned to the colony and found nests in almost all the scrub oaks of sufficient size, but never more than one in a tree. One, half completed, was in a juniper. The birds, slow to leave their nests, finally did so noisily. As it had snowed many times since his first visit, the nests were damp from melted snow. Nearly all contained four eggs, but one had five.” In the same general region, and at about the same elevation, he discovered a second, smaller nesting colony on March 4; and a third colony of perhaps 150 birds was found on March 28; many of these nests held eggs.
Major Bendire (1895) tells us that “the first nests and eggs of this species were found by Mr. Charles E. Aiken, near Colorado Springs, Colorado, on May 13, 1874. * * * The first naturalist, however, who observed the nests and young of this species was Mr. Robert Ridgway, who found a colony nesting in a low range of pii~on-covered hills in the vicinity of Carson City, Nevada, on April 21, 1868”
Col. N. S. Goss (1891) reports that his brother, Capt. B. F. Goss, took nine sets of eggs of the pinyon jay in May 1879 near Fort Garland. Cob. “The nests were all in high, open situations, two of them well up the steep mountain sides, and none in valleys or thick timber. All were in small pifion pines, from five to ten feet up, out some distance from the body of the tree, and not particularly well concealed”
J. K. Jensen (1923) says that “the nesting season extends from February to June, during which time fresh eggs may be found,” in New Mexico. He found a set of four fresh eggs on May 18, and on March 19, “a colony of thirteen nests each containing four young, some full grown.” On March 15 he located a colony of 17 nests, all with fresh sets, two of three, eleven of four, and four of five. “All the nests found were placed from two to eight feet from the ground: average height five feet, and all but one were built in pifion pines, this one being placed four feet up in a juniper”
Eggs: Four or five eggs, oftener the former, constitute the ordinary set for the pinyon jay; as few as three incubated eggs have been found and rarely as many as six eggs or young have been recorded. The eggs vary in shape from short-ovate to elliptical-ovate, but ovate is the prevailing shape. They are only slightly glossy. The ground color is bluish white, greenish white or grayish white. This is usually evenly covered all over with minute dots or small spots in various shades of brown, from reddish brown to purplish brown; sometimes there are larger spots or even small blotches, which are apt to be concentrated about the larger end. Bendire (1895) says that “an occasional set is blotched heavily enough to nearly hide the ground color, but this appears to be rarely the case.” The measurements of 50 eggs in the average 29.2 by 21.7 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 32.0 by 22.6, 31.7 by 23.4, 26.3 by 20.7, and 28.0 by 20.0 millimeters.
Young: Major Bendire (1895) writes: “Incïubation lasts about sixteen days. The Pifion Jays are close sitters and, like Clarke’s Nutcracker, are devoted parents. The young are able to leave the nest in about three weeks, and may easily be distinguished by their somewhat duller plumbeous blue color. They at once form in flocks and rove about from place to place in search of food”
Mr. Cameron (1907) says: “To the best of my belief, both birds share the duties of incubation. * * * ~~ is an interesting sight in June, to watch a flock of some hundred or more Pifion Jays which contains a large proportion of the newly fledged young. After the latter can fly well they still expect the parents to feed them, and clamor incessantly to be fed, repeating their shrill monotonous cry of wauck on a single note, whether on the ground or in the pine branches, voracious, openmouthed fledglings walk towards the parents, flapping their newly acquired wings to attract attention. The old birds may then be seen supplying them with grubs and insects. I observed one female feed a single offspring on the ground several times in a few minutes”
Mrs. Wheelock (1904) says that the young “learn to extract the sweet kernels of the pihon nuts before they leave” the nest. “They are also fed quite as fully on grasshoppers from which legs and wings have been carefully removed”
Plumages: Mr. Cameron (1907) writes: “The naled slate-colored young were hatched on June 15, so that the time of incubation was about 18 days. They are fully feathered at two weeks old, being then a uniform lavender of exactly the same color as the flower of that name, with bill, legs, and feet to match. The hue is darkest on the quills and lightest on the crissum. After leaving the nest they become more ash gray, lighter below; the tail is then dark slate with a light tip, and the ends of the primaries almost black. Until after the fall moult the birds show no real blue”
The postjuvenal molt seems to be very variable as to date, on account of the variation in the date of hatching, but it occurs before fall and apparently involves everything but the wings. I have seen two in this molt on August 15.
The first winter plumage, which is worn until the following summer, is much like that of the adult female, but much duller throughout, the general color being bluish gray rather than grayish blue, with brownish rather than blackish primaries and with pale-gray under parts, more whitish in the anal region. Adults apparently have their postnuptial molt before the middle of September, as after that date they all seem to be in fresh plumage.
Food: The chief food of the pinyon jay, or rather its favorite food, is the sweet nut of the pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), but it also eats to some extent the nuts, seeds, or young tender cones of other pines, particularly the yellow pine (Pinus scopulorum). Other vegetable food includes various wild fruits, such as the fruits of the red cedar and the boxelder, various seeds, and sonic grain; these jays are said to do considerable damage to grain crops, but probably most of the grain is picked up as waste grain.
The animal food consists of grasshoppers, beetles, and other insects and, to some extent, the eggs and young of small birds. J. B. Dixon tells me that “these birds are relentless in their search through the desert scrub for other birds’ nests and destroy their eggs and young when found.” Other observers do not seem to emphasize this habit.
II. W. Henshaw (1875) says: “A large flock of these birds were seen near Silver City, N. Mex., October, busily engaged on the ground feeding upon grass seeds. Those in the rear kept flying up and alighting in the front rank, the whole flock thus keeping in continual motion.” Near Tularosa, late in November, he saw “a large flock engaged in catching insects on the wing, and in this novel occupation they displayed no little dexterity. From the tops of the pine trees, they ascended to a considerable height, when, hovering for an instant, they would snap up an insect and return to near the former position, remain for a moment, and again make an essay”
Mr. Cameron (1907) adds: “Like Magpies, however, they are practically omnivorous, and a Pifion Jay has been known to meet its fate in a wolf trap by which destructive instrument so many of the former have perished. Like Magpies, too, Pifion Jays come about the ranch house in the hope of receiving scraps from the table, alighting but two or three yards from the door, or on the hitching post where the horses are tied. They are also very fond of insect food, and may be seen walking about as they turn over dried cattle manure in search of coleoptera. Mr. Dan Bowman informs me that in his locality (Knowlton) soft corn on the cob has a great attraction for them”
Mr. Braly (1931) saw one of these birds feed its mate while the latter was engaged in incubation: “On coming in with food, a male usually perched on the top of a tree forty or fifty feet distant from the nest and called the female off to be fed. While being fed, she made a screeching series of calls similar to those of a young bird and continually fluttered her wings, and if the male flew to another tree, she followed, begging for more food. Having finished feeding, the male flew back to the feeding ground and the female flew directly to the nest, making it very easy to find. The feeding was closely observed and was solely by regurgitation, an unusual procedure for any of the crow or jay family”
Behavior: Pinyon jays are among our most highly gregarious birds at all seasons, and, except in their nesting colonies, they are always restless and erratic nomads and almost always noisy, making their presence known as they sweep over the foothills in flocks of hundreds. In many of its movements this bird is more like a crow than a jay; its flight is crowlike, though considerably swifter, and has been likened to that of the robin or Clark’s nutcracker; on long flights from one feeding ground to another, it often travels in compact flocks. It spends much time on the ground, where it often feeds in rolling flocks; its gait is a dignified walk or easy run, with its body more or less erect and its head held high, more like that of the starling than like the bouncing hops of the jays. If a flock is disturbed while feeding in the pines, the first one to leave gives a warning cry and the others follow in a leisurely manner,’ one at a time, until all are on the wing.
John T. Zimmer (1911) writes: “The birds are not particularly wary but are somewhat difficult to approach at times owing to their restless nature which keeps them constantly moving. I have been standing in the line of approach of a flock of Pinion Jays and had them settle all around and within a foot or two of me and not show the least sign of fear when I moved around among them. They would turn and peer at me and were full of curiosity. Even when I shot they would merely rise, wheel around with loud outcries for a moment or so and then settle down and continue their activities as if nothing had happened to disturb them”
Voice: Mr. Braly (1931) says that “the female has a call given when near her nest, that closely resembles krook, krook. The male has a peculiar whistle-like note when one is near a completed nest and a very jay-like note when the female is disturbed from her nest.” According to Mr. Cameron (1907), “their presence is always proclaimed by their shrill cry of u~r wh&k, ~ wh~,ck; the last note short, but the first two notes long and high pitched like the caterwaul of a cat.” Ralph Hoffmann (1927) writes it differently: “Besides the mewing call queh-a-eh, given in flight, they utter, when perched, a continual quek, queb, queh.” Mr. Zimmer (1911) describes their note as a “high, nasal ‘kree-kree-‘ or ‘karee-karee-‘, repeated rapidly many times in succession or long drawn out.” Bendire (1895) says that some of the notes “are almost as harsh as the ‘chaar’ of the Clarke’s Nutcracker, others partake much of the gabble of the Magpie, and still others resemble more those of the jays”
Field marks: A dull-blue, crowlike bird, with a short tail and a long, slender bill, could hardly be anything else but a pinyon jay, especially if seen flying about, or feeding on the ground, in flocks. The voice is also distinctive, if one is familiar with it; and it is very noisy.
Enemies: The pinyon jay may be something of a nest robber, but it also has been preyed upon itself occasionally. Mr. Cameron (1907) saw the young disappear at intervals, one after the other, soon after hatching, from a nest that he was watching. They were hatched on June 16, and by July 2 only one fully fledged bird remained in the nest; Being at a loss to account for the disappearance of the young, he sat down to watch, and after a long wait be saw a pair of northern shrikes fly straight to the nest tree. Fortunately for the surviving youngster, the parent jays were at home; they attacked the shrikes and drove them away.
Fall: As soon as the young are strong on the wing they begin to gather into larger flocks than ever and start on their erratic fall and winter wanderings. These huge flocks, numbering hundreds and sometimes a thousand or more, swoop over the foothills and open country in a rolling mass, the birds in the rear overtaking the leaders and all screaming their loudest. Their movements are not governed by climatic conditions but by the scarcity or abundance of the food supply. Even where pine nuts and cones and cedar berries are abundant, the supply is soon exhausted by the many mouths to be fed, and the flocks move on to seek new fields, with hundreds of eyes on the alert to detect the presence of any available food supply. When there is a scarcity of pinyon nuts, or other normal food, or when they have exhausted the supply, the flocks sweep down on the grainfields and may do considerable damage to late crops of beans, corn, or other cereals. All through the fall and winter, flocks may be seen coming and going, but they may be very abundant during one season and entirely absent from the same region the next season; or they may be there in hundreds one day and all gone the next.
These fall flocks sometimes indulge in interesting flight maneuvers; Henshaw (1875) quotes C. E. Aiken as follows: “At Fort Garland. Cob., in October, 1874, I saw probably a hundred of these birds in a dense, rounded mass, performing evolutions high in the air, which I have never before known them to do; sweeping in wide circles, shooting straight ahead, and wildly diving and whirling about, in precisely the same manner that our common wild pigeons do when pursued by a hawk. This singular performance, with intervals of rest in the pii’ions behind the fort, was kept up for about two hours, apparently for no other purpose than exercise”
Laurence B. Potter tells me that he had an excellent sight record of a pinyon jay, at short range, at Eastend, Saskatchewan, on September 16, 1910.
Winter: At least some pinyon jays spend the winter as far north as Montana, where, according to Mr. Cameron (1907), “in midwinter, Pifion Jays seek deep ravines and love to sun themselves either on a bank or in the branches of low cedars which grow there. When thus sheltered these noisy, restless birds will sit motionless for some time without calling to each other. At this season their food seems to consist entirely of cedar berries”
At the other end of the line, in Brewster County, Tex., Van Tyne and Sutton (1937) say that “they are a characteristic species of the region in winter, but are practically never seen in summer.” In intejmediate regions throughout their range they are locally abundant or scarce according to where they can find their necessary food supply, traveling about in flocks, often considerably beyond the limits of their summer range.
Range: MountainoUs regions of the Western United States; not regularly migratory.
The range of the pinyon jay extends north to central Oregon (Grandview); Montana (probably Missoula, Pompeys Pillars, and Terry); and South Dakota (Rapid City). East to western South Dakota (Rapid City and Elk Mountains); Colorado (near Fort Lyon); western Oklahoma (Kenton); eastern New Mexico (Mesa Pajarito and Santa Rosa) ; and western Texas (Guadalupe Mountains). South to southwestern Texas (Guadalupe Mountains) ; southern New Mexico (San Luis Pass); and northern Baja California (San Pedro M~trtir Mountains). West to Baja California (San Pedro M~rtir Mountains, Vallecitos, and Campo); eastern California (San Bernardino Mountains, Argus Mountains, Inyo Mountains, and White Mountains); western Nevada (Carson); and central Oregon (Bend and Grandview).
Although not a regular migrant, the pinyon jay does considerable wandering, particularly in fall and winter. At such times it has been recorded north to northwestern Montana (Eureka, Fortine, and Columbia Falls) ; east to eastern Nebraska (Neligh, Norfolk, Lincoln, Harvard, and Red Cloud), eastern Kansas (Lawrence, Baldwin, and Wichita), central Oklahoma (Oklahoma City); and west nearly or quite to the Pacific coast, as California (Los Angeles, Pacific Grove, and Berkeley) and Oregon (Salem and Gaston). It has been recorded in summer without evidence of breeding in south-central Washington (Fort Simcoe) ; northwestern South Dakota (Short Pine Hills) ; and northern Nebraska (Holly and Valentine).
Casual records: A specimen was reported at Eastend, Saskatchewan, on September 16, 1910.
Egg dates: : California: 9 records, April 9 to 21.
Colorado: 13 records, March 23 to May 19.
New Mexico: 34 records, February 16 to June 10; 18 records, March 15 to 28, indicating the height of the season.
Oregon: 4 records, April 10 to 15.