In a patch of piñon pines, Bianca Sicich, a graduate student at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, hides in a blind holding a string. The string is attached to the door of a homemade trap of PVC and wire that she’s baited with sunflower seeds and a few piñon nuts. She sits there quietly for hours, awaiting a flock of Pinyon Jays, a species critical to the piñon-juniper ecosystem's survival. If she’s successful in capturing birds in her trap, she will tag them with radio transmitters to follow their movements across large home territories. Through this and other studies, Sicich wants to learn whether Pinyon Jays will have enough food if piñon pines, the birds’ main food source, stop producing seed as the climate warms and drought intensifies.
Pinyon Jays and piñon pines share an intimate relationship. The cerulean corvids live in the trees year-round, nesting in their branches and eating piñon seeds. In return, the birds help the trees proliferate. Every few years, piñon pines produce a mast crop of cones. When that happens, within weeks a large flock of Pinyon Jays can harvest millions of seeds to cache for winter. This bounty lets them nest in greater numbers and raise more young. But they forget where they hide 10 percent of seeds; these grow into the next generation of trees. Although other animals also carry seeds. Pinyon Jays, which haul 50 at a time, are the only dispersers able to reestablish pines after disturbances like fires and insect infestations.
Unfortunately, because of drought, insects, and development, piñon pines are producing less seed, pushing both species into a snowballing decline. Over the past 40 years, the population of this once common bird has declined by 85 percent across its range, which stretches from Baja California to Wyoming. Without intervention, the remaining population is expected to decline by an additional 50 percent by 2035, making it one of the fastest declining bird species in the United States. These declines spurred the nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife in April 2022 to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) for a listing under the Endangered Species Act. The agency’s deadline to respond has long since passed; a draft 90-day decision on whether FWS will consider listing the species was due this summer. The petition remains in internal review, according to Defenders of Wildlife.
Multiple factors are behind the losses of both species: past conversion of piñon-juniper woodland into grazing lands; modern developers clearing the habitat (including jay nesting colonies) to build housing and energy projects; and changes in habitat due to climate change. Ips confusus, known as the pinyon pine beetle and native to the Southwest, also create problems. In a healthy woodland, the beetles serve as bird food and help trees decompose. When the insects tunnel too deep into the wood, trees produce sap to push them out. But higher temperatures and long-term drought conditions driven by climate change have interrupted this self-defense mechanism. Beetle infestations now overwhelm already stressed woodlands, causing mass die-offs and a significant decrease in seed production. Without ample food, Pinyon Jays forgo nesting, resulting in population declines. Without jays, the woodland may not be able to move into more habitable areas as the climate changes.
Scientists face difficulties in understanding the Pinyon Jay population because the birds' habitat isn’t well studied. In some areas piñon trees have died en masse. But land managers debate whether piñon-juniper woodland is in decline overall. While large tracts have been cleared or died off, in other areas trees are expanding into sage flats and climbing upslope. “What’s contributing to the decline of Pinyon Jays is something about the quality of the habitat, rather than the amount of the habitat,” says biologist John Boone, research coordinator at Great Basin Bird Observatory, who has studied the species for 14 years. Research is revealing that today’s woodlands are less diverse, less dynamic, and less productive than they once were, he says.
Studying the jays themselves is also a challenge. The nomadic, social birds travel in large flocks across territories that can stretch five miles or more. To address data gaps, several graduate students and scientists, like Sicich, are tracking jays using satellite tags and radio transmitters. The data will help illuminate how Pinyon Jays use their large home territories: where they eat, rest, play, and nest.
Transmitters alone can’t collect enough data to understand this athletic species. To help researchers gather information on the jays’ whereabouts and behaviors, the Great Basin Bird Observatory launched a community science program during the pandemic, working with Audubon Southwest, Lahontan Audubon Society, Grand Canyon Trust, and other groups. Using eBird as well as custom smartphone apps, birders can gather detailed data on Pinyon Jays’ presence, absence, and behavior. “I get two or three emails a week from people saying they have noticed big declines in Pinyon Jays at their feeders and are glad we are doing something to address this,” says Audrey Kruse, Grand Canyon Trust’s community engagement director. The project is currently recruiting volunteers throughout the jays’ range, especially in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado. The hope is that this additional data will help build a more complete picture of the lives of Pinyon Jays and help develop conservation measures to help this iconic bird of the West thrive again.
Some measures are already being put into practice. Organizations such as the Pinyon Jay Working Group and New Mexico Avian Conservation Partners have published guidelines for adjusting land management practices to better account for Pinyon Jays’ needs and adapt to a changing climate. To improve the habitat, land managers can protect areas where birds nest and piñons are known to produce large mast. Landowners can replant native grasses and forbs removed by livestock grazing or construction; these native species lock in moisture and keep soil temperatures cool, which supports piñon pines’ ability to produce seeds and withstand drought.
Experts are also looking to the future. “With climate change, we have to accept that some areas will become unsuitable Pinyon Jay habitat,” says Peggy Darr, who started working with the species as Santa Fe County’s wildlife biologist and resource management specialist and now works for Defenders of Wildlife. “That's why it's even more important to do a bunch of research to figure out where these woodlands will persist and protect them.” She’s experimenting with several approaches to support areas where woodlands are expected to persist under a warmer climate. In New Mexico, the epicenter of the Pinyon Jay population, that means protecting trees on north and east sides of slopes where temperatures are cooler. She's also working to control erosion and trap water downslope of trees.
“Identifying areas where piñon pines might persist and conserving those slopes is one important way that we adapt to climate change,” Darr says. She’s also working to improve the trees’ reproduction. In addition to experimenting with ways to germinate piñon seeds and plant seedlings, Darr wants to find ways to boost the seed production of existing trees in areas that might be climate resilient. She is launching a program to work with suburban landowners in areas where Pinyon Jay flocks live to improve habitat there. Landowners can care for trees in their yards to encourage piñon masts, for example by watering or controlling erosion around certain target trees. Darr’s goal is to produce seed for research and reforestation, as well as provide piñon nuts for jays that live in the suburbs. If the Pinyon Jay goes extinct in some regions, these suburban flocks could one day become a source for repopulation.
These efforts are stop-gap measures intended to sustain the piñon woodlands until Pinyon Jay populations recover, when they will resume their work spreading seeds and planting trees. A listing under the Endangered Species Act could provide additional protections and tools to help the bird and other vulnerable species in the habitat. But ultimately it will take all these efforts—research science, community science, and creative land management—to bring the species back.
“With the Pinyon Jays decline being as bad as it is, it's imperative to be trying everything we can, even if it seems outside of the box,” Darr says. “No idea is a bad idea.”
This story originally ran in the Winter 2022 issue as “The Pinyon Puzzle.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.