Pinyon Jay - Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus
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.
For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.
Distinguished from all other sympatric jays by the combination of overall blue color, shorter tail, and lack of crest.
Western Hemisphere Range
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).
Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations:
(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version)
Map Help and Descriptions
SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding
Indirect Evidence of Breeding
No Evidence of Breeding
WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Not Regularly Observed
(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 (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for
vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
- 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 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
- Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
- Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
- 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 listed as associated with 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 listed as 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.
Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific 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 assignment of common versus occasional association.
If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.
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: mtnhp.org/requests
) 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.
- 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. 2012. Mammals of Montana. Second edition. Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana. 429 pp.
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- 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.
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.
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. In their Conservation Strategy for the Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus)
, Somershoe et al., (2020) provide a comprehensive review of the current knowledge of the species and present key information and research needs to support management and conservation of Pinyon Jays using the best available science.
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 The birds of North America, No. 605 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and American Ornithologists’ Union.
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- Somershoe, S. G., E. Ammon, J. D. Boone, K. Johnson, M. Darr, C. Witt, and E. Duvuvuei. 2020. Conservation Strategy for the Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus). Partners in Flight Western Working Group and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 56 p.
- Additional ReferencesLegend: View Online Publication
Do you know of a citation we're missing?
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