It was January or February of the very dry winter 2018, when several new birds arrived at my backyard feeders in downtown Ridgway.
Their shape was roughly familiar, yet different: They resembled the Western Scrub-Jay, a bold creature that once dive-bombed my husband in its quest for a peanut.
Jays are corvids, which are considered to be the most intelligent of birds (their relatives include magpies, crows and ravens, which tells you something).
Having procured its prize, the bomber ferried its nut up, up to the top of a telephone pole, where it used its beak to pound the unsalted legume into an elongated, peanut-shaped hole. (We watched in awe as the perfectly placed nut disappeared.) The jay was caching his food for later in a brilliant, obscure spot, out of sight of other corvid-competitors.
Before that winter, I knew scrub jays to be solo operators and had witnessed, at most, two at a time. But these new, blue visitors behaved differently. They arrived in a pack. They kept to themselves. They drained the feeders. And then they were gone.
Each day, I put more seed out. The birds showed up at almost exactly the same time every morning, tanked up and took off. I had a chance to study them through my binoculars and realized: These aren’t scrub jays!
No wonder I hadn’t witnessed them before: these were Gymnorhinus cyanocephalus — pinyon jays — which (my bird app revealed) typically live above downtown Ridgway in the pinyon-juniper forest. I guessed they were in town because they’d run low on food. In eight years of living here, it was the first I’d seen them.
I was lucky to observe them at all, because pinyon jays are disappearing.
Montrose biologist Shawn Conner recently conducted a pilot project on pinyon jays for Colorado Parks & Wildlife last spring. He’ll speak about what he learned at a Black Canyon Audubon Society meet tonight (Thursday) at the Montrose Field House.
“There’s some concern about what’s going on with pinyon jays,” Conner said. “The Breeding Bird Atlas shows their numbers are declining every year. Nobody’s really studied them in Colorado yet; nobody even knew if there were any protocols for finding their nesting sites.”
“We had pretty good success” finding their nests, he said. “We looked pretty much all over Western Colorado, from Rangely and the San Luis Valley down to Mesa Verde. We found nests in 16 out of the 8 plots we chose. So that’s pretty good.
“They’re an interesting bird,” Conner added. “They’re colonial nesters; the biggest nest we found was 50-60 birds. They’re quite social, and they breed cooperatively: the young ones help the adults raise the chicks, which is pretty unusual jay behavior. It’s believed that they mate for life.”
As Connor talked, the jays became more intriguing. Then he added a poignant detail.
“They’re one of the earliest nesters,” he said. “Between January and April” — exactly when the jays arrived in my backyard — “they’re breeding. Once the other birds start, they’re done.”
I pieced the drama together (for suddenly it was a dramatic story): Hungry birds were arriving in winter not just for sustenance for themselves, but for their chicks. The entire family was famished. Nesting was taking place right then! Perhaps the younger birds had stayed back and warmed the eggs, while the adults came and gorged.
“They’re uniquely tied to the pinyon tree, which produces nuts, but not every year,” Conner added. “They’re adapted to flying around and finding food when there are no nuts.” I was correct about what looked like gorging, and not just because they were hungry. “One of their unique traits is they have an expandable esophagus, so they can pack, like, 40 pine nuts in their esophagus. Or 60 of your sunflower seeds,” Conner said. “We’ll have to get you an extra bag of seeds at Murdoch’s. Have a good winter,” he added at the end of our conversation. “Here’s hoping you see the birds again!”
I actually hope I don’t. The more I came to understand about pinyon jays, the more I prefer to picture my mysterious visitors well-fed, safely ensconsed on their nests.
Conner’s talk is at 7 p.m.