EarthNotes - Pinon Jays

Flagstaff, AZ – Pinyon jays have developed a special relationship with their namesake, pinyon pines. For the last 40 years scientists at Northern Arizona University have studied more than 25 hundred birds to find out exactly how this relationship works.

Led by biologist Russell Balda, the researchers have shown that pinyon jays have one of the most complex social systems in the entire crow family. Living in flocks of between 100 and 150 birds, they forage for food, store it at traditional cache sites and raise their young all as one big group enterprise.

Their excellent spatial memories help pinyon jays to relocate hidden stashes of pinyon nuts months after hiding them. They use these food supplies to feed themselves through the winter, and to help them start breeding well before spring officially arrives.

In a typical year, pinyon jays all nest at the same time, usually in early February. Once fledged, the young birds gather in noisy baby jay nurseries. When the parents turn up with food, they're able to recognize the calls of their own offspring within the large and raucous group of youngsters.

But recent drought in the Southwest has hit pinyon jays hard. Failure of pine cone crops has at times forced them to forage in smaller groups, and to nest at different times rather than all at once. If the drought goes on, Balda says it could permanently alter pinyon jay society. It could force the birds to focus on individual survival instead of their long-standing communal lifestyle.

-Diane Hope