Crawlies with Cri: Pinyon Jay

(Photo by Christy Solo for the Illinois Valley News)

Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus)

Fun fact: Oregon is home to nine species of corvid (crows, ravens, jays). We’ve met several species so far, and this week’s crawly is a jay you may not have heard of. Meet the pinyon jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus).
Pinyon jays may be one of Oregon’s best kept secrets. While they aren’t exactly “right here in our own backyards” they are worth taking a scenic drive to go see.
Pinyon jays have a small North American range, and a very small range in Oregon. They can be found from Bend south to the California border in Klamath in a narrow line of habitat hugging the eastern side of the Cascades.
Their range here is narrow because they depend on pinyon pines as the staple of their diet. They also are a keystone species for pinyon-juniper forests as they are the main dispersers of those seeds.
Pinyon jays are unique among jays in many ways. First, they are small jays. The largest pinyon is the size of the smallest scrub jay. They have shorter tails than our other jays, but longer beaks. They sport such a vibrant gradient of blue hues they have been mistaken for mountain bluebirds.
True to their name, pinyon live in pinyon-juniper, chaparral and scrub-oak woodlands and they do this living in large, gregarious flocks. Pinyons are non-migratory and the aggregated flocks stick together year-round. One of the pinyons’ nicknames is the “blue crow” due to their azure color and crow-like social nature.
When it comes to their genus, Gymnorhinus, pinyon are the epitome of unique, because they are the only species in their genus. “Gymnorhinus” meaning bare nostrils is an unfortunate, but accurate scientific name.
While our other jays have fine feathers at the base of their beaks to protect their nostrils, pinyons lack them. This allows pinyons to use those long beaks to dig deep into unopened pinyon pinecones and get the tasty seeds without worrying about having nose feathers glued over their nostrils with pitch.
Though pinyon jays depend on pinyon pine, they are omnivores filling out the rest of their diet with other seeds, berries and various insects, especially beetles, caterpillars and grasshoppers. They’ll happily dig into suet if it’s available, especially when they are feeding babies and young fledglings.
Individual pairs of pinyon jays will mate for life. The flock will build nests in a spot where there was a good crop of seeds in the past autumn. They’ll nest in ponderosa, pinyon and juniper trees. Some of their nests are as high as 115 feet above the ground.
Both males and females work together to build the nest. Males bring in most of the bulkier nest materials like sticks; females gather the mosses and feathers and do the detailed weaving of the nest’s inner lining.
Pinyons will have one brood of two to five young. Both parents will work together to feed the babies and will even get extra help from younger relatives who have not yet formed pair bonds of their own to begin nesting.
Pinyon jay populations are in decline and are on the conservation watch list. Luckily you can still see them in Oregon and enjoy our scenic byways on the drive.