Pinyon Jay Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus

Kristine Johnson and Russell P. Balda
Version: 2.0 — Published March 19, 2020

Conservation and Management

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Conservation Status

The Pinyon Jay is listed as Vulnerable on the Red List of Threatened Species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which suggests it faces a high risk of extinction in the medium-term future if current population declines continue (161). It is recognized as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need by several state wildlife agencies (162), a Bird of Conservation Concern by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (163), and a Partners in Flight Yellow Watch List species (160).

Effects of Human Activity

Historical Impacts on Habitat and Current Threats

Vast areas of pinyon woodlands in the Great Basin were deforested in support of the Nevada silver mining boom of 1859–1880. Lanner (6) estimated that between 400,000 and 525,000 acres of pinyon woodlands were used for mine construction and production of the charcoal used for smelting ore. Except for a brief boom in the 1920s and 1930s, the clearcutting of pinyon woodlands slowed after the decline of the mining industry in the late 1800s, but it was followed by clearcutting for farming of pinto beans in southwestern Colorado. In the 1950s, large-scale chaining was conducted to create pasture for cattle grazing. Between 1950 and 1964, an estimated 3 million acres of pinyon woodlands were chained (6). The U.S. Forest Service justified the chaining of millions of acres of pinyon woodlands based on the hypothesis that pinyon–juniper had invaded areas historically covered in grassland. Lanner (6) challenges this hypothesis, as do more recent studies (73). Although many of these woodlands have recovered, millions of Pinyon Jays may have died as a result of these policies (164), which closely preceded and coincided with the earliest documentation of Pinyon Jay population declines. Beyond Pinyon Jays and other wildlife, the destruction of pinyon woodlands resulted in an “unmitigated disaster” for many western Native American tribes, as their wood, winter food, and a sacred cultural resource were destroyed (6).

Despite continued population declines of the Pinyon Jay, the area of pinyon-juniper woodlands may have expanded, suggesting that declines in habitat extent are probably not driving the population trend (75). Current concern about Pinyon Jay is based mainly on climate-related impacts to pinyon–juniper habitats and management practices that may impact habitat quality. Direct climate-related impacts to pinyon–juniper woodlands include large-scale mortality of pinyon pines (7, 165), significant reductions in canopy cover (11), declines in pinyon cone production (9, 10), and reductions in pinyon tree vigor in nesting colonies (8). Climate models predict distributional changes of pinyon–juniper habitat (166, 167) and massive, widespread pinyon and juniper mortality across the southwestern United States (168). Indirect impacts of climate change include increased incidence and severity of wildfire (169) and insect outbreaks (170, 171). These recent impacts and predictions have increased concern over the future of the Pinyon Jay and other wildlife of pinyon–juniper ecosystems. Climate-vulnerability models for the Pinyon Jay project substantial range reductions, including 24% in summer and 37% in winter by 2080 (172), and a 25–31% decrease in the overall range by 2099 (173).

Current management in Great Basin pinyon–juniper woodlands includes removal of trees to create or protect shrublands for the benefit of Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) and other sagebrush-associated wildlife (75). Across the West, mechanical thinning, fire, and chemical treatment of pinyon–juniper woodlands have increasingly been used to reduce potential wildfire risk or improve biodiversity or ecological condition (174). Only a few studies directly address the impacts of woodland thinning on Pinyon Jays, but one recent study found a thinning treatment reduced occupancy by Pinyon Jays in treated areas (175). Another found that Pinyon Jays stopped nesting within significantly thinned areas of a traditional nesting colony (176).

Thinning is also conducted in an attempt to promote pinyon pine health and greater resistance to drought, on the assumption that thinning reduces underground competition for water and other resources. A limited number of studies, however, suggest that density of trees in pinyon–juniper woodlands may not be the sole or primary mechanism of tree mortality, and thinning may not improve tree health or survival and may even hurt it through increased evapotranspiration (177, 178). Anecdotal evidence suggests that pinyon pine trees may remain highly vulnerable to drought-related mortality from bark beetles after woodland thinning (179). Limited research suggests the survival of remaining trees after woodland thinning may depend upon the type of pinyon–juniper woodland, with wooded shrubland habitats (and potentially juniper savannah habitats) possibly responding positively to thinning, and persistent pinyon–juniper woodlands potentially responding negatively (178).

Some types of development may affect Pinyon Jays. Noise from oil and gas wells may produce PTSD-like responses and impact fitness in pinyon–juniper birds (180). Although Pinyon Jays are tolerant of some noise near nesting colonies, they appear to avoid nesting very close to oil and gas wells, which produce constant noise that may interfere with vocal communication (181).

Another possible impact to Pinyon Jays and other bird species is the dramatic decline of insect populations worldwide (182,183). Although the Pinyon Jay mutualism with pinyon seeds has been emphasized, they also eat insects (4, 164), feed them to nestlings, and rely on them when pinyon seeds are unavailable. Pinyon Jays have been reported to nest successfully in response to a large emergence of periodical cicadas (4). The exact causes of insect declines are unknown. Hypotheses include habitat loss (due to agriculture, in part), insecticides, and changing climate (184). Loss of insects may therefore be an effect of climate change, direct human activities, or both.

Shooting and Trapping

Pinyon Jays are fearless and bold around humans and may nest near houses, schools, and partly developed roads (71). Air guns are a common cause of deaths in these situations, as are cats.

Pesticides and Other Contaminants

Effects of pesticides and other contaminants have been not studied. In urban settings, young (hatch-year) birds (n = 4) have been killed by ingesting lawn fertilizer, motor oil, and antifreeze (2).

Collisions With Stationary/Moving Structures or Objects

In urban settings and along roadways, Pinyon Jays are hit by vehicles. At houses with established bird-feeding stations, Pinyon Jays have seldom been known to hit windows (RPB).

Disturbance at Nest and Roost Sites

When a nighttime predator enters a roost, the entire flock departs the site (RPB). If American Crows and Common Ravens are not present on traditional nesting grounds, birds are not sensitive to nest disturbance by researchers (71).


Given that the causes of Pinyon Jay population declines are not yet well understood (see Priorities for Future Research), management guidelines will likely change as more research results become available. Recommended management actions are summarized (see below) from the Conservation Strategy for the Pinyon Jay (162) and the Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus) species account in the New Mexico Bird Conservation Plan (185); see these for additional information.

Woodland Management

Prior to woodland thinning, determine if Pinyon Jays are using a proposed treatment or development area by conducting standardized surveys (115, 162). If Pinyon Jays are using the area for nesting, seed caching, or foraging, avoiding treatments in these areas is recommended.

Avoid woodland treatments (thinning, chemical, burning) within and around traditional Pinyon Jay nesting colonies. Maintain preferred woodland structure (see Habitat ) surrounding colonies. A 500 m buffer of suitable habitat around the colony site would allow for colony movement in case of tree mortality or declining health (8, 176). If treatments or development must be implemented in areas used by Pinyon Jays, avoid thinning during the Pinyon Jay breeding season, approximately early March to late May.

Pinyon Jays use woodlands with a wide range of tree density and canopy cover. Thinning and management should therefore be based on local conditions and Pinyon Jay habitat use (74). In 2014 and 2015, Magee et al. (175) documented reduced local-scale Pinyon Jay occupancy after thinning (conducted from 1998–2014) reduced canopy cover from 35% to 5%; therefore, large reductions in canopy cover are discouraged.

If fuels reduction treatments are prescribed in persistent pinyon–juniper woodlands, consider alternative fuels management approaches, for example:

  • In persistent pinyon–juniper woodlands, confine fuels treatments to wildland urban interface (WUI) areas.
  • Take advantage of naturally occurring die-off in lieu of treatments. In habitats lacking natural tree die-off, thin primarily on south and west facing slopes, and retain dense stands on north- and east-facing slopes. These areas are favored by Pinyon Jays for nesting and may be the most likely to survive under climate change scenarios.
  • On south-facing and west-facing slopes, in homogeneous habitats lacking natural tree die off, thin trees in small patches, leaving unthinned patches.
  • Limited research suggests 15–35% canopy cover is sufficient to stop most pinyon–juniper crown fires during extreme fire behavior (179). If the entire area to be thinned for fuels reduction is ≤ 15–35% canopy cover, reevaluate the necessity of fuels reduction. If the entire area to be thinned for fuels reduction is > 15–35%, retain approximately 15–35% canopy cover in thinned patches, while retaining higher canopy cover in larger, unthinned patches.

Avoid or minimize disturbance in productive pinyon–juniper woodlands containing old or very old trees, which are likely of prime pine nut producing age (186). Avoid removal of all juniper from thinned areas, as Pinyon Jays will use junipers, especially large, densely-crowned junipers, for nesting (67).

Maintain and increase numbers of wildlife waterers in suitable Pinyon Jay habitat (115).

Woodland Disturbance

Avoid Pinyon Jay nest colony sites when planning development, including energy development; e.g., oil and gas, wind, and solar; off-road vehicle trails; roads; other ground disturbances.

Limit collection of cone-producing pinyon trees for fuelwood, especially in areas within the home range of a Pinyon Jay flock. Regulate legal pinyon nut harvest, especially in areas within the home range of a Pinyon Jay flock. Increase enforcement to reduce illegal harvest of pinyon nuts.

Reduce Ips beetles by reducing the number of slash piles that provide winter hibernacula.

Recommended Citation

Johnson, K. and R. P. Balda (2020). Pinyon Jay (Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.pinjay.02