Pinyon Jay Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus

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


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Systematics History

The Pinyon Jay was first informally described in 1833 by German naturalist Alexander Philipp Maximilian in his Reise in das Innere Nord Amerika (cited in Palmer [31]). The species was once known as Maximilian's Jay and for a time placed in genus Cyanocephalus (e.g., 16).

Geographic Variation

No comprehensive analysis of geographic variation in morphology has been done for the Pinyon Jay. Limited variation in bill size and shape as well as slight differences in plumage coloration has been reported, and 3 subspecies have been proposed (32, 18, 33, 20). However, none of the proposals have been adopted (34). In the proposals, Northern Rocky Mountain breeders are said to have shorter and slightly decurved bills. Individuals from the Great Basin mountain ranges and the central and southern Rockies are said to have slightly longer and straighter bills, whereas those in southern California and northern Baja California, Mexico are reported to have relatively longer and wider bills. The differences in color described may be artifacts of age and wear (33). Also, differences in bill size and shape may reflect type of cone and pine seed harvested for caching, as has been documented for Woodhouse's Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii) (35).


None, but see Systematics: Geographic Variation.

Related Species

The Pinyon Jay is the sole species in genus Gymnorhinus. Based on nuclear and mitochondrial DNAs for representatives of all 7 New World jay genera (Aphelocoma, Calocitta, Cyanocitta, Cyanocorax, Cyanolyca, Gymnorhinus, Psilorhinus), Fernando et al. (36) found the Pinyon Jay to be sister to the Cyanocitta clade, which includes the Steller’s Jay (C. stelleri) and the Blue Jay (C. cristata). They estimated the divergence between Gymnorhinus and Cyanocitta to be about 3.5 million years ago, in the mid-Pliocene. They found the Gymnorhinus + Cyanocitta pair to be sister to genus Aphelocoma, which includes the scrub-jays and the Mexican Jay (A. wollweberi). The New World jays had been shown earlier to be a monophyletic group (37; see 38).

Resemblance between the Pinyon Jay and the Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) led some earlier authors to ally the Pinyon Jay with Old World corvids (e.g., 39) or consider them intermediate between New World and Old World jays with uncertain relationships (e.g., 40, 19).


Generic (Gymnorhinus) and specific (cyanocephalus) names from Latin: Gymno = bare, rhinus = nostril; cyano = blue, and cephalus = head.

Fossil History

A fossil jay from late Miocene (Miocitta galbreathi) resembled present-day Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) and Pinyon Jay (41). The specimen was collected near Peetz (Logan County) in northeastern Colorado. Pinyon pines were also in existence in the late Miocene, indicating that the bird and pinyon pine were present at the same time (6). An extralimital record exists from San Josecito Caves in the Sierra Madre Oriental, Nuevo León, Mexico, from late Pleistocene. Present-day populations in central New Mexico are about 1,000 km from the caves (42). Pinyon–juniper expansions occurred into this region during late Pleistocene (43) and could have been assisted by the Pinyon Jay.

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