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Pinyon Jays: Specialist Birds of the Western U.S.

Pinyon jays (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) belong to the Corvidae family, a highly intelligent
group of birds that includes crows, jays, and magpies. These highly-sociable blue-gray birds look
more like crows than other members of their own jay brethren. As their name suggests, pinyon
jays feed heavily on the seeds of pinyon pine trees, and they form impressive flocks that are
fairly easy for bird lovers to spot. Learn more about the pinyon jay below.
Pinyon jays are non-migratory, but they are nomadic, moving as needed to find food. They are
found year-round in the Great Basin area, including the Grand Canyon, and can also be found in
northwestern Montana and North Dakota, as well as the northern state of Chihuahua in Mexico.
Pinyon Jays and Pines: A Mutualistic Relationship
Like many species, the pinyon jay has a mutualistic relationship with the pinyon pine. Put
simply, the jays need the trees, and the trees need the jays. The jays help the pinyon pines by
extracting seeds from the cone until their throats are full of seeds. The birds then fly to different
sites, sometimes many miles away, and cache the seeds under leaf litter. Collectively, the birds
cache millions of seeds, many of which sprout before the jays get to them; thus, new trees are
born. Pinyon jays have remarkable memories, and can find seeds theyve cached months later,
even when covered under snow.
By spreading the seeds, the jays help ensure the continued existence of the pinyon pine, and, in
turn, the seeds provide nourishment for the jays.
Pinyon jays fire off a rapid succession of nasally crauk-crauk or ha-a-a-a calls, which some
have described as resembling laughter.
Diet and Behavior
Pinyon jays are sociable birds that can live in large groups of up to 100, and they can form
massive flocks of thousands of birds that forage together beginning in August. They sometimes
partner up in flocks with other species, including the hairy woodpecker, northern flicker, and
European starling. The most likely reason for flocking with other species is protection from
The pinyon jay eats the seeds of pinyon, ponderosa, and bristlecone pines, as well as berries,
small fruits, nuts, and, especially in summer, many different insects, from beetles, to
grasshoppers, to caterpillars.
Pinyon jays are monogamous, but they may seek out a new mate if their existing mate is lost.
The jays construct their nests out of twigs, bark, grasses, pine needles, and other materials, and
will typically lay a clutch of 3-5 pale blue, dark-speckled eggs in mid to late Spring. The birds
place the nests around 18 feet off the ground, and the female incubates the eggs for 16-17 days.

If climate conditions are favorable and food is abundant, the jays will nest at other times of the
year. The chicks fledge at around 3 weeks of age.
Habitat loss is an increasingly serious problem for pinyon jays, and their populations have
declined significantly in recent years. Loss of habitat from increased development and livestock
grazing in coniferous woodlands of pinyon pine and juniper trees is largely driving the decline.
They are currently classified as vulnerable by the IUCN.2
Spotting Pinyon Jays
Pinyon jays can be found in pine forests, scrub oak, chaparral, and sagebrush. They form large
flocks and are very vocal, making them fairly easy to spot. They are frequently seen in the Grand
Canyon area. Whether youre visiting on your own or as part of a Grand Canyon tour, look for
large flocks of these birds at the higher elevations and listen for their raucous chatter.