Pinyon Jay Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus

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

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

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Sociality in Pinyon Jays favors a variety of vocalizations that allow individuals to stay in contact with their flock members, identify themselves and others, demonstrate their status and motivation during social encounters, and rapidly receive and convey information about themselves, their surroundings, and kin (2).


Newly hatched young give soft peeps when 1–2 d old. By 7 days of age, these vocalizations are louder and more harsh and are accompanied by wing-quivering. At 15 days of age, young begin to give the typical Juvenile Begging Chirr. These calls are complex and contain elements that parents use to identify their offspring (116, 117).

Young Pinyon Jays in the formative stage of song development are especially prone to sing rambling subsongs. Although corvids are not known for their vocal competence, Pinyon Jays in their first summer are especially verbose and produce a complex set of songs. Many notes in the subsong are typical Pinyon Jay calls, such as Nears, Trills, Kaws, Buzzes, Ricks and Racks. Varied sounds of the subsong, however, are not jay-like, and contain beeps, toots, musical whistles, bell-like sounds, notes reminiscent of a woodwind instrument, clicks, chuckles, and grating sounds. Once RPB recorded > 20 min of continuous subsong given by a single bird. No two subsong bouts are alike, and each session seems to be spontaneously composed. In most passerines, this behavior is a precursor to song crystallization. After such “practice,” adult song takes on more stable properties. In most passerines, true song is learned and plays an important role in communication; this may also be the case in these highly social birds. At least two suggestions for the function of these vocalizations are: (1) Mature birds use some type of soft singing during pair-bonding, bond maintenance, courtship, and nesting that occasionally has been detected but because of its hushed nature is difficult to hear and analyze, and (2) Call notes embedded in these subsongs may require a certain amount of learning by singing. Song learning appears to be prominent in this social bird.

Vocal Array

A flock of 300 Pinyon Jays can be totally quiet or loud enough to be heard 2 km away. The loudest calling occurs when a flock has encountered a potential predator (e.g., Great Horned Owl [Bubo virginianus] or Northern Goshawk [Accipiter gentilis]) or when a flock is assembling for a long flight. Young fledglings in the crèche also make an ear-splitting din with their harsh, strident begging calls. Usually, however, flocking birds can be heard to give soft contact Krawks or Nears as they forage or fly from place to place. In the most complete study of Pinyon Jay vocalizations, Berger and Ligon (118) recorded and described 15 different calls. They recorded vocalizations of birds held in a large aviary using a Uher 4000 Report L tape recorder at 7.5 ips and a Uher 514 microphone. Analyses were made with a Kay 6061-B sonography. These are listed and described below along with a cautious attempt to delineate function.

Rack or Krawk. This nonaggressive call is commonly given by flock members while they forage and between mates during nest-building. It may serve as a greeting call between flock members. It is a short note that may be given singly or in a series. Racks may serve as contact calls to inform individuals about the location of others, coordinate movements, and allow passive approach (Figure 5A; ML 79791091).

Multiple Rack. This loud, staccato call is given when jays perceive danger by either a human intruder or predators. Each series of Multiple Racks is separated from the next by a brief pause. Pinyon Jays typically give this call while perched on an exposed high branch of a tree in close proximity to the potential predator. This call sends flock members diving for cover, causes nestlings to freeze, and quickly assembles a group of jays to mob a predator. It is given with increased frequency as day length increases and the breeding season begins (119, 118, ML 68398181).

Racka. This loud, sharp, staccato call is used to assemble the flock to mob a predator. Flock members respond by quickly assembling to join in calling. It may be given in combination with Multiple Rack and Rattle calls (118).

Falling Racka. This call consists of a unique series of descending Racks. Jays isolated from flock members give this call and males that have recently lost their mates may sit high in a tree and give this mournful call (118).

Near or Near-er. This common call is individually distinct and serves to identify each member of the flock, mates, offspring, and relatives. It is most commonly used during the breeding season; e.g., pairs use it during nest construction, egg-laying, feeding the incubating and brooding female, and nestlings and fledglings. It is recognized by parents and their young and used extensively to efficiently coordinate feeding of the young (116). Upon hearing their approaching parents give this call, nestlings become alert and attentive, and shift to the proper body position to rapidly receive food. This behavior may thwart predators. This call is also used by mated pairs to identify each other in the colony (Figure 5B).

Kaw. The typical call given when the flock is moving between locations. This is also reportedly given by both members of a pair after copulation (118). The Kaw is longer and more quivering in pitch than Nears (Figure 5C; ML 136631981 ).

Courtship Feeding Chirr. This rather harsh, prolonged series of notes is characteristically given by a female as she is being fed by her mate. It is usually loud, and the caller is easy to locate. During courtship, females may persistently chase their mates while giving this call. It is also given by the female while stick-passing during nest construction and when males feed their females during incubation and brooding. Females vibrate their wings and tails while Chirring. The loudness and directional qualities of this call can be used to locate nests. This call is also given by extremely subordinate birds when approached by dominant birds. Wing- and tail-quivering (89) also occurs during these bouts (118).

Juvenile Begging Chirr. This loud stereotyped call is used by nestlings and fledglings when approached by their parents and when being fed. Body postures performed during this call include extension of the neck, wide gape of the bill, crouching, and wing- and tail-quivering. Young may give this call to their parents long after they are independent. This call also stimulates very hungry birds in other nests to imitate the feeding birds and begin producing this call. Some helping-at-the-nest behavior may be initiated by this call (116). This call is also used by subordinate birds when challenged by dominant birds. Parents use the individual qualities of this call to identify their young shortly before they fledge (117), which aids them in sorting out their young among a hungry mob of fledglings (ML 65178901).

Trill, Rattle, and Piping Rattle. These calls appear to be given solely by females. The Trill consists of a series of rather high-pitched short notes that end in a long, descending slur. Trills are given almost exclusively in spring and fall and may function in individual recognition between mates. Agitated females give Rattles. This call is similar to the Trill but has a rather harsh tonal quality. Females Rattle when predators approach, when they mob predators, when their males sidle too close, or when a non-mate approaches too close. At times, females use high-pitched piping notes known as the Piping Rattle (Trill: ML 81349331; Rattle: ML 39109171).

Rick. This soft, short call is often given when members of a pair are in close contact as during nest construction, preening, swagger-walking, sidling, or “silent sitting” (see Behavior: Sexual Behavior). The call seems to be nonaggressive and possibly indicates approval of a situation, thus fostering courtship and pair-bonding (118).

Buzz or Burt, or Brrack. Individuals in close contact with one another often communicate with a complex set of calls composed of short, soft Buzzes given in rapid succession. This set of notes is quite variable and often ends in an upward-sounding Burt or Brrack. These notes appear to function like the Near call, except that their quietness would restrict their use to close-contact situations. Birds giving the Buzz call may be aroused or aggressive, as the tail is often flicked and spread during its production. Males give this call as part of the pre-copulatory display (118).

Ran. This call is given solely by males. When frustrated, they give this soft, vibrato nasal call. When males attempt to sidle with their mates and they are ignored or Rattled at, they often produce this call. When care-givers exit the holding room, caged jays typically give Rans (118 ).

Alarm Calls. Given when Pinyon Jays were presented with a mounted Cooper's Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), Abert's squirrel (Sciurus aberti), American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos) or (for a control) a Pinyon Jay. Jays gave significantly more Multiple Racks to the hawk and the crow than to the jay and squirrel. However, neither macro- nor micro-analyses of these Multiple Rack calls indicated that Pinyon Jays distinguish between predators by the use of the Multiple Rack. For more detailed information on predator alarm calls, see 2.

Copulation Chirr. When females present themselves in the copulatory position and also during copulation, they give an extended and more variable version of the Courtship Feeding Chirr, in this case named by Berger and Ligon (118) as the Copulation Chirr. They suggested that these Chirrs may serve to strengthen pair bonds (118).


Most vocalizations are given year-round, but see Vocal Array (above) for exceptions.

Daily Pattern

The first vocalizations of the day are given when birds awake at the roost. Loud Kaws are given by many members of the flock as they fly rapidly above the treetops, occasionally landing on high perches. The flock alternates loud calling, perching, and rapid swirling flights through the trees for about 10 min before departing for a foraging area. This behavior appears to assemble and rally the flock to move off in unison. Vocal performance is unpredictable during remainder of the day.

Places of Vocalizing

Pinyon Jays vocalize while perched, while on the ground, and while flying.

Repertoire and Delivery of Songs

Not applicable, as Pinyon Jay vocalizations do not include song.

Social Context and Presumed Functions

Flock Recognition. Experimental evidence using playback tapes indicates that Pinyon Jays recognize flock members, mates, and kin. In these experiments, individuals were provided a matched set of “flock” and “non-flock” calls to choose from (See 2 for details). Calls were played to individuals of known flock membership. Calls believed to be more “general flock calls” used as contact calls between flock members were recognized most readily in the experiments. Birds moved about in their cages and vocalized more when they heard the Kaws and Nears of flock members compared to those of non-flock members. Kaws appeared to be the strongest “flock signature” of any call investigated. Kaws may contain flock-specific features that allow quick and easy classification of flock and non-flock categories. Nears, however, appear to contain more individual traits and may take more time to learn. This might explain why juveniles are less likely than adults to show recognition of their own flock members' Near calls. Flock members also responded to their own flock's Multiple Racks by repeating the same call 3 times as frequently when it came from a flock member compared to a non-flock member. Although adult males, females, and yearling males responded most vigorously to this call, yearling females did not do so. This cohort is the most subordinate and also the most likely to move between flocks.

Nonvocal Sounds

Many corvids bill-click, which produces a clacking noise. Berger and Ligon (118) believe it may be a nonaggressive signal between mates. Also heard from captive birds when they appear highly agitated (RPB).

Figure 5. Selected vocalizations of Pinyon Jays.

A. Rack. B. Near-er. C. Kaw. D. Multiple Rack. E. Begging Chirr. F. Fledgling Begging Chirr. A–E from Berger and Ligon 1977; from McArthur 1982. Used with permission.

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