Caretakers of the Woodland: Pinyon Jays in Clark County

By Morrigan DeVito

Photo by Alex Harper

Pinyon Jays unfurl the sky from their wings with sharp, trembling calls as they take flight. Once airborne, these cerulean nomads seemingly vanish into a rocky landscape of long-limbed pinyon pines and bushy junipers. Squabbling and constantly calling out to their flockmates, they search for pinyon seeds to eat along with juniper berries, acorns, and insects. A sentinel watches over the flock and scans for threats. But does the sentinel see the threat of climate change on the woodland?

If you’ve ever been to Mt. Charleston to escape the summer heat, then you’ve driven through the heart of Pinyon Jay territory. The core of the Pinyon Jay population in North America lives in pinyon-juniper woodlands across Nevada. In Clark County, pinyon-juniper woodlands can be explored in the Spring Mountains to the west, the Sheep Range to the northeast, and the McCullough Range to the southwest. Although Pinyon Jays may be present in any of these woodlands, tracking their whereabouts can be difficult because they follow the harvest of pinyon pine seeds.

But Pinyon Jays do more than just eat the pinyon pine seeds. They are caretakers of the woodland, planting future generations of pinyon pines in the transitional zone between sagebrush or creosote-scrub and pinyon-juniper habitats. These corvids cache seeds (sometimes up to 2,600) underground to store for later, relying on their excellent spatial memory to find them. But like the best of us, their memory isn’t perfect. Fortunately for pinyon pines, this means their seeds are distributed widely. The partnership between jays and pines has helped the woodland spread into sagebrush and creosote habitats at low elevations around 4,900 ft. Researchers aren’t exactly sure why Pinyon Jays prefer caching in the open mixed habitat, but it may have something to do with their spatial memory being better suited for clear areas.

Pinyon Jay Conservation

But the Pinyon Jays’ nomadic lifestyle comes with a cost. They are so deeply intertwined with the presence of pinyon pines that if pinyon-juniper habitat is removed or altered, they are forced to adapt as well. And pinyon-juniper woodlands are facing unprecedented challenges. Although the woodlands are the most common type of forest in the Southwest, they are threatened by increased wildfires, drought conditions, pine beetle infestations, livestock grazing, and human development.

In 2022, the Pinyon Jay was petitioned for listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act by Defenders of Wildlife because they have lost 80% of their population since the 1960s. Partners in Flight lists Pinyon Jays as a high priority species that could lose another half of their population in the next 30 years. And even though these charismatic birds are listed as species of concern on the state and federal level, there is currently no systematic conservation action to mitigate their population decline.

In response to these threats, biologists with the Great Basin Bird Observatory (GBBO) are scouring pinyon-juniper woodlands for traces of Pinyon Jays. The “blue crows” hold precious information about the health of the pinyon-juniper woodlands. In 2008, GBBO launched the first radio-telemetry project done on Nevada’s Pinyon Jays in White Pine County. Biologists attached tiny radio transmitters to the jays after catching them with walk-in traps and mist nets. After release, they tracked and followed the jays to get a better understanding of their movement and behavior patterns.

“[...] everytime I get to spend time with them I am learning new things,” biologist and GBBO Outreach Coordinator Ned Bohman says. “I was lucky enough to have spent a few months tracking two members of a flock near Carson City using radio telemetry. These are some of my favorite memories, and often involve being outwitted by birds.”

Despite the clever games between birds and biologists, GBBO has found that Pinyon Jays use transitional landscapes between pinyon-juniper and sagebrush habitat and that they have relatively small flock home ranges between 10-15 km. (6-9 mi.). They also found that Pinyon Jays have relatively consistent breeding grounds despite their frequent and sporadic movement across the landscape. Their breeding grounds are often in denser areas of the woodland, where there is space to nest, roost, and harvest pinyon pine seeds. Data like this will help inform land management decisions in the future to ensure that Pinyon Jays have the right habitat to survive the changing landscape. 

Since Pinyon Jays rely on a variety of habitats, there is no one-size-fits-all management practice to help them. Like the flexibility of Pinyon Jays moving through a patchwork of mountain and desert habitats, conservation strategies will have to be flexible as well. But information gleaned from radio telemetry is limited to how many birds are caught and tagged. And there is still so much to learn about the mysterious movement and behavior of Pinyon Jays.

Competition With a Cause: The Nevada Bird-a-thon

Enter the Nevada Bird-a-thon. In 2020, GBBO hosted the Nevada Bird-a-thon to raise money to fund a community science program specifically designed for studying Pinyon Jays behavior. Every May since, teams get together to go birding and fundraise for Pinyon Jay conservation. The Bird-a-thon has grown from just seven teams in 2020 to more than 20 teams competing in 2022, raising a grand total of $4,685.

That money funded the Pinyon Jay Community Science Hub, a GIS system that gives people the opportunity to record their own Pinyon Jay sightings from anywhere in the West. By registering for an account with GBBO and downloading an app, birders can play an integral role in Pinyon Jay conservation by marking the presence, absence, and behavior of Pinyon Jays.

So why not use eBird? Although marking Pinyon Jay sightings on eBird is beneficial, eBird does not allow users to mark absence data or have a standardized way of recording bird behavior. It’s important to know where Pinyon Jays are, but knowing where they are not is sometimes more illuminating, especially for such transient birds like Pinyon Jays. The absence records show how their ranges shift in relation to the presence of pinyon pines. And knowing when the jays are doing significant behavior like caching pine seeds and nesting allows researchers to note what the most significant areas of their habitat are.

You can explore the current results of the Pinyon Jay surveys on GBBO’s website. The most common behavior reported is flying over, once again hinting at the elusive nature of the Pinyon Jays. The second most reported behavior is foraging, such as when the jays are searching for pine seeds, juniper berries, and insects to eat in the leaf litter.

In Clark County, there are more absence records than presence records. However, the more people that contribute to the surveys, the more likely it is that the presence of Pinyon Jays will become better documented. So far, Pinyon Jays have been recorded in Kyle Canyon and marked as absent in pinyon-juniper habitats across the Spring Mountains and Red Rock Canyon. In comparison, Pinyon Jays have been better documented on eBird in Clark County, with over a hundred recorded across the Spring Mountains, Sheep Range, and McCullough Range in the last 10 years.

How You Can Help Pinyon Jays

To help GBBO crack the code of Pinyon Jay behavior across their range in Clark County, you can document Pinyon Jays when you see them. The more eyes and ears that are on the trail of these mysterious nomads, the better. So take a moment before your next trip to the mountains and go to GBBO’s Pinyon Jay community science hub to register for an account. Once set up, you can collect data on Pinyon Jays either as the intended purpose of your outing, or on your way to and from the mountains while doing other activities.

You can also help raise money for pinyon jay science and conservation in GBBO’s 2023 Bird-a-thon. The window to participate lasts from May 5 to May 15 and more information will be released on their website and social media closer to the start date. You can register as an individual or a team, and there are multiple ways to participate, whether that’s a big day where you try to list as many birds as possible throughout NV, or backyard birding where you list birds from the comfort of home. Taking part in the NV Bird-a-thon gives you the opportunity to fundraise and compete with your friends to raise money and do what you love: go birding!

Whether you fundraise or just stop for a few minutes as you drive through pinyon-juniper habitat and document the presence or absence of Pinyon Jays on GBBO’s community science hub, you can make a difference in our knowledge of Pinyon Jays. And the more time you spend searching for these roaming corvids, the more memories you will create with them and the pinyon-juniper woodland. What will you discover?