Pinyon Jay

Although pinyon jays (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) live and travel in large flocks of up to several hundred individuals, since we live on the western edge of their range we do not often see them. It is a feast or famine situation – no pinyon jays or hundreds of them.

Yesterday Leonard and I were driving in a juniper-ponderosa pine woodland near Tulelake Ca when we noticed a flock of pinyon jays near the road, the first I remember seeing in over a year. Leonard screeched to a stop, made a U-turn and drove back. I jumped out of the car and tried to approach them. There were at least a hundred birds. I am convinced those clever birds were teasing me there in the freezing rain. They would move a little deeper into the trees, wait until I got close and then move on again – always just out of camera range.  Although I did not get good pictures, I am so excited about the pinyon jays that I am going to share a couple anyhow.

This social bird lives on the lower mountain slopes of the interior western mountains from Central Oregon (we saw them in Bend OR once) to Montana south to central Arizona and New Mexico. Their habitat is amid pinyons, juniper, sagebrush, scrub oaks and pines.

Always in flocks, the pinyon jay is dull blue over its entire body except for white stripes on the chin. The bill and feet of this large bird are black. Unlike the other jays, pinyon jays do not have feathers at the base of their bills but instead the nostril area is bare. This allows the pinyon jay to probe deeply into pine cones that are laden with pitch without fouling the feathers around their beak.

Although they are omnivores, pinyon jays mostly eat pine seeds. They gather and cache pine seeds. With its good memory this jay can retrieve its store of food even from under the snow in the winter. Aviary observations and experiments show that mated pairs seem to coordinate caching so that both birds know where the pine seeds are hidden.

In addition to opening green pine cones for seeds, pinyon jays also eat acorns, juniper berries, cultivated grains and small mammals, lizards, snakes and nestling birds. They are adept at probing into crevices in bark and the soil to capture their prey, killing their victim with blows to the head using their beaks.

What a wonderful sighting!!

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