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Pinyon Jay Life History


Open Woodlands

Pinyon Jays occupy pinyon-juniper woodlands, sagebrush, scrub oak, chaparral, and ponderosa pine forests year-round.

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Pinyon Jays eat pinyon-pine seeds, acorns, juniper berries, other wild berries, cultivated grains, and occasionally insects, lizards, snakes, nestling birds, and small mammals. Although they are omnivorous, they primarily eat pinyon-pine seeds. They forage in groups picking out seeds from green pine cones, eating them on the spot or caching them to eat later.

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Nest Placement


Pinyon Jays nest in areas that had a good crop of seeds in the previous fall. In these areas they nest in ponderosa pine, pinyon pine, and junipers anywhere from 3 to 115 feet above the ground. The nest can be next to the tree trunk or on the tip of a branch amongst dense foliage. In some areas they tend to place the nest on the south side of the tree for extra warmth.

Nest Description

Pinyon Jays build a large, bulky cup of sticks with a middle layer of grasses and an inner cup of finer materials, such as feathers, horsehair, rootlets, or shredded bark. Males bring the majority of sticks to the nest site, but females take care of weaving the grasses and other materials into the sticks.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-5 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:1.0-1.3 in (2.6-3.4 cm)
Egg Width:0.8-0.9 in (2-2.3 cm)
Incubation Period:17 days
Nestling Period:21-22 days
Egg Description:Pale blue with dark brown speckles, usually concentrated around large end.
Condition at Hatching:Naked and helpless.
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Ground Forager

The strong-flying Pinyon Jay moves across open woodlands in noisy groups in search of seeds. They extract seeds from green pinyon-pine cones, which can be a messy affair. To get the sticky sap off their bill they frequently wipe it side to side on a branch. Seeds are either eaten on the spot, buried in the ground, or stashed in tree crevices to eat later. Pinyon Jays have complex social structures: they form large, permanent flocks and sometimes breed cooperatively. Flocks can have more than 500 members that travel the landscape in search of seeds. When foraging on the ground they tend to leapfrog over members of the group looking for the next meal. If seeds are not abundant within their area, they roam about and often turn up outside their normal range. Pinyon Jays generally mate for life. To attract a mate, males and sometimes females feed a prospective mate. As courting continues females start to beg for food while quivering their wings and may even chase the male. Courting birds also walk side by side on the ground with a swagger, preen each other, and males offer sticks to females. In some years, young unpaired birds may help feed the young from another, often related pair, a behavior known as cooperative breeding. When the chicks are old enough to leave the nest, fledglings gather in groups called creches where parents feed their own young.

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Pinyon Jays are uncommon and their populations declined by 85% between 1970 and 2014, according to Partners in Flight. They are a Yellow Watch List species, and have a Continental Concern Score of 14 out of 20. Partners in Flight estimates that if current rates of decline continue, Pinyon Jays will lose another half of their remaining population by 2036. The estimated global breeding population is 690,000. In the past large areas of pinyon-juniper forest were converted to grazing lands eliminating their habitat. Fire suppression and continued grazing pressures also reduce the amount of available habitat.

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Balda, R. P. 2002. Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus). In The Birds of North America, No. 605 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love (2016). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2016.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory, Laurel, MD, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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