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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Pinyon Jay - Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus

Species of Concern

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3

Agency Status


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Copyright by: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, all rights reserved.
General Description
Pinyon Jays are small-medium and crestless, about 26-29 cm in total length. The bill is more pointed and the tail shorter than in other jays. Adult plumage is entirely dull blue, except chin, throat and breast region streaked whitish, and inner webs of primaries black. Sexes are alike in appearance, except crown is slightly deeper blue in males and female bill is slightly longer.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Distinguished from all other sympatric jays by the combination of overall blue color, shorter tail, and lack of crest.

Species Range
Montana Range

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Western Hemisphere Range


Range Comments
Pinyon Jays are permanent residents from central Oregon, southern Idaho, central Montana, western South Dakota, and northwestern Nebraska south to northern Baja California, central Arizona, central New Mexico, and extreme western Oklahoma. Especially in winters when cone crops fail, they wander outside the breeding range and have been found in southern Washington, northern Idaho, western Montana, western Kansas, western Texas, northern Sonora, and northern Chihuahua (Balda 2002).

Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 750

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


(direct evidence "B")

(indirect evidence "b")

No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")

(regular observations "W")

(at least one obs. "w")


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Permanent resident in the state. May be nomadic but not migratory in the typical sense. Two banded Pinyon Jays have been killed illegally in Montana. The first was an adult banded in western South Dakota on 3 Mar 1956 and shot in the Bears Paw Mountains in summer 1961, the second was a hatching-year bird banded in northern Wyoming on 2 October 2005 and shot near Red Lodge in January 2006.

Pinyon Jays are closely associated with pinyon-juniper habitat in the southwestern U.S., but in Montana they occur in low-elevation ponderosa pine and limber pine-juniper woodlands. They build bulky cup nests of twigs and grasses and place them on horizontal limbs of pines. The few nests reported from Montana have been in ponderosa pines (Cameron 1907) or limber pines (T. McEneaney, personal communication).
Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of “observations versus availability of habitat”.
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were associated as using an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at or (406) 444-3655.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species’ known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana’s amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Pinyon Jays are generally omnivorous, with pine seeds forming an important component of the diet. Juniper berries, wild fruits, agricultural grains, and animal matter (arthropods, lizards, snakes, nestling birds, small mammals) are also eaten. Pinyon Jays are adapted in many ways for the harvest, transport, storage, retrieval, and use of pine seeds, especially those of pinyon pines. Pine seeds are cached in thick litter and needle layers covering the ground (Balda 2002).

Pinyon Jays are extremely social, and rarely observed individually except during irruptions. Helpers have been reported tending to nests of their parents in Arizona, but social organization has not been studied in Montana. Home ranges of flocks in Arizona were up to 8 x 8 km (4.8 x 4.8 miles). When cone crops are spotty birds may leave the home range and wander much greater distances in search of cones (Balda 2002). Nests and eggs are depredated by snakes, birds, squirrels; raptorial birds take fledglings and adults. BBS data indicate annual declines in numbers of 2.3% in Montana and 4.3% survey-wide from 1980-2007. Montana CBC data for the same period show a modest increase in numbers seen per party hour until 1988, followed by an abrupt and then modest decline back to 1980 levels, with a striking spike in 1997.

Reproductive Characteristics
Usually 3-5 eggs are laid. Egg hatch dates are from late April to mid-June. Flying young being fed by adults observed on June 1. Breeding in Montana probably occurs from March to July, although few nests have been followed. A half-finished nest found near Fallon on 19 May contained a full clutch of five eggs on 28 May, a brood of hatchlings on 15 June, and a nestling near fledging on 2 July (Cameron 1907). Gerald Thomas reported finding a "colony" of nine nests in Yellowstone Co. on 27 April 1918, five of the nests in the same tree, and all containing “young fully fledged” (Saunders 1921). Since the 1990s, nests with eggs have been found in April near Gardiner, recently fledged young in mid-June in Lewis and Clark Co. and Carbon Co.

No management activities specific to Pinyon Jays are currently occuring in Montana. Destruction of pinyon-juniper woodlands is a major factor in the widespread decline of Pinyon Jays south of Montana. In addition, fire suppression has resulted in accumulation of fuels and led to increasingly severe fires in ponderosa pine stands (Balda 2002). Loss of ponderosa pine woodlands probably is the greatest threat to Pinyon Jays in Montana; management activities promoting the health of ponderosa pine will benefit Pinyon Jays.

Threats or Limiting Factors
Loss of ponderosa pine woodlands probably is the greatest threat to Pinyon Jays in Montana.

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Balda, R.P. 2002. Pinyon jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus). In: A. Poole, ed. The Birds of North America, Species Account Number 605. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY.
    • Cameron, E. S. 1907. The birds of Custer and Dawson Counties, Montana. Auk 24(3):241-271.
    • Saunders, A. A. 1921. A distributional list of the birds of Montana. Pacific Coast Avifauna Number 14. 194 pp.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-list of North American birds. 7th edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. 829 pp.
    • Balda, Russell P. 2002. Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus). Species Account Number 605. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database
    • Ecological Consulting Service, Helena, MT., 1975, Peabody Coal Company Big Sky Mine: Wildlife environmental indicators monitoring survey. Progress report. Project 58-23-A. June 16, 1975.
    • Econ, Inc. (Ecological Consulting Service), Helena, MT., 1977, 1977 wildlife and wildlife habitat monitoring study, Peabody Coal Company Big Sky Mine. Proj. 161-85-A. November 30, 1977.
    • Econ, Inc., Helena, MT., 1988, Wildlife monitoring report, 1987 field season, Big Sky Mine. March 1988. In Peabody Mining and Reclamation Plan Big Sky Mine Area B. Vol. 8, cont., Tab 10 - Wildlife Resources. Appendix 10-1, 1987 Annual Wildlife Report.
    • Econ, Inc., Helena, MT., 1991, Wildlife monitoring report: 1989 field season, Big Sky Mine. March 1991.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Fjell, Alan K., 1986, Peabody Coal Company Big Sky Mine, Rosebud County, MT. Wildlife monitoring report: 1985 field season. March 1986.
    • Fjell, Alan K., and Brian R. Mahan., 1983, Peabody Coal Company Big Sky Mine, Rosebud County, MT. Wildlife monitoring report: 1982 field season. May 1983.
    • Fjell, Alan K., and Brian R. Mahan., 1985, Peabody Coal Company Big Sky Mine, Rosebud County, MT. Wildlife monitoring report: 1984 field season. February 1985.
    • Fjell, Alan K., and Brian R. Mahan., 1987, Big Sky Mine, Rosebud County, MT. Wildlife monitoring report: 1986 field season. April 1987.
    • Humphris, Michael., 1994, Wildlife Monitoring Report. Spring Creek Coal Company 1994 Mining Annual Report. Appendix I. April 1994.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
    • Lenard, S.J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar's Montana Bird Distribution, 6th Edition. Montana Audubon: Helena, MT, 144 pp.
    • Madge, S. and H. Burn. 1994. Crows and Jays: A guide to crows, jays, and magpies of the world. Houghton Mifflin Company, N.Y. 191 pp.
    • Marzluff, J. M., and R. P. Balda. 1988. The advantages of, and constraints forcing, mate fidelity in pinyon jays. Auk 105:286-295.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Powder River Eagle Studies, Gillette, WY., 1992, Big Sky Mine 1991 wildlife monitoring studies. Rev. February 1992.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
    • Walcheck, Kenneth C., 1999, The Lewis & Clark Expedition: Montana's first bird inventory through the eyes of Lewis and Clark.
    • Western Energy Co., Colstrip, MT., 1982, Western Energy Company Rosebud Mine, Colstrip, Montana: Annual Wildlife Report, 1982.
    • Western Technology and Engineering, Inc. (WESTECH). 1994. Wildlife Monitoring Absaloka Mine Area Annual Report, 1993. Montana SMP 85005. OSMP Montana 0007C. Mar. 12, 1994.
    • Western Technology and Engineering, Inc. (WESTECH)., 1993, Wildlife Monitoring Asaloka Mine Area Annual Report, 1992. Montana SMP 85005 R1. OSMP Montana 00078. 1993.
    • Western Technology and Engineering, Inc. (WESTECH)., 1994, Wildlife Monitoring Absaloka Mine Area Annual Report, 1994. Montana SMP 85005. OSMP Montana 0007D. Febr. 24, 1994.
    • Western Technology and Engineering, Inc. (WESTECH)., 2000, Wildlife Monitoring Absaloka Mine Area Annual Report, 1999. Montana SMP 85005. OSMP Montana 0007E. February 2000.
    • Western Technology and Engineering, Inc. (WESTECH)., 2001, Wildlife Monitoring Absaloka Mine Area Annual Report, 2000. Montana SMP 85005. OSMP Montana 0007E. February 2001.
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Citation for data on this website:
Pinyon Jay — Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on May 28, 2016, from