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Pinyon Jays star in an “irruptive” year for West Texas birds

1 pinyon jays at feeder cecilia.jpeg
Michael L Gray
Courtesy of Cecilia Riley
A colony of pinyon jays – some 200 birds strong – has been wintering in the foothills of the Davis Mountains this year. Along with a colony in the Guadalupe Mountains, they are the first flock of these striking, canny birds seen in Texas in two decades.

As wooded sanctuaries amidst a desert sea, the West Texas mountains host a wondrous diversity of birds — from colorful full-time residents to migrating hummingbirds. But this winter has been something special in the Trans-Pecos high country. From Alpine and Marfa to the Davis and Guadalupe mountains, birds rarely seen in Texas have made their winter abodes here.

It's an iconic sound in the Rocky Mountain foothills, on the high plateaus above the Grand Canyon, in the red rock country of Utah. Pinyon jay calls carry over long distances, as these social birds pursue their brash, emphatic conversations.

Since December, ornithologist Cecilia Riley has been hearing that conversation at her Limpia Crossing home, outside Fort Davis. And that's something special. It's the first time a flock of these “blue crows” has been seen in Texas since 2000.

“They are interesting birds,” Riley said, “and they're beautiful. I just think they're really fascinating, the way they communicate in their group. They're constantly communicating. Lots of birds don't do that at all, and they certainly don't hang out together in colonies.”

Pinyon jays are a little larger than an eastern blue jay, and they're a “monomorphic” species — meaning that adult males and females have the same appearance, which is a uniform bluish-gray. As Riley said, they're set apart by their “colonies.” The colony at Limpia Crossing numbers some 200 birds. A smaller flock — of about 75 — also appeared in December at Guadalupe Mountains National Park, though that group seems to have moved on.

Colonial bonds are strong. Some females disperse from their “natal” flocks. But about 80 percent of pinyon jays live out their lives among siblings and kin. And they stick together.

The flock's arrival at Riley's feeder usually begins with a single bird — acting as scout.

“It will just sit up there in the top of that tree,” Riley said, “and it will call and talk and talk. And it's like they're calling the flock, saying, 'Hey, the food's out here! Come over here!' If the flock comes, fine. If the flock doesn't come after five minutes or so, that bird will not eat by itself. It leaves and goes and joins them.”

As their name suggests, pinyon jays are intimately bound to a particular landscape — woodlands of piñon pine. They nest in the trees. And while they're omnivorous, the seeds or “nuts” of the small pine are the birds' vital food source. Bumper crops of piñon nuts occur every few years — and the jays capitalize on that. They stash nuts in holes and crevices, often using thousands of locations. And they remember those stashes, sometimes returning a year later. Like crows and ravens, pinyon jays are “corvids,” with a marked intelligence.

Of course, they do misplace a few seeds. And a few of those will become new trees. Indeed, the piñon forests rely on the jays for survival, just as the jays rely on the trees.

The pinyon jay presence at Limpia Crossing hasn't gone unnoticed. Birders from across the state have come, for the unique opportunity to add these birds to their Texas list.

Riley, and neighboring bird enthusiasts, have welcomed them. The jays have a bottomless appetite, and Riley said she's glad the visiting birders have kept that in mind.

“We're very lucky,” Riley said, “but they can really eat. We go through 40-pound bags of sunflower seed, which are really expensive right now. Thankfully, the birders visiting are bringing food too. That helps.”

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Michael L Gray
Michael L Gray
photograph by Michael Gray. Highly social birds, pinyon jays live in “colonies” with siblings and kin. Often, individual birds will serve as scouts or sentries.

Where these pinyon jays came from, and why they came this year, is a mystery. Flocks are typically faithful to a single territory. The Limpia Crossing birds may have been driven south by a low pine-seed crop. Perhaps they're refugees from wildfire impacts. With drought and habitat loss, these remarkable birds are increasingly imperiled. Pinyon jay populations have declined an estimated 85 percent in the last half-century, and there are calls for their listing as an endangered species.

The jays aren't the only birds finding seasonal sanctuary in the wooded uplands of West Texas.

In November, an evening grosbeak — a radiantly yellow finch — made an appearance at a backyard feeder in Alpine. Riley hustled to see it. It was her first evening grosbeak sighting in Texas. The bird has also been seen in the Guadalupes.

Red crossbills — normally denizens of Canadian forests — are lingering in golf courses and cemeteries in Alpine and Marfa. The same locales are hosting Lewis's woodpeckers birds with gorgeous, rose-pink breasts. They're more commonly found in Colorado.

Mountain bluebirds breed as far north as Alaska. But they're present this winter in the Davis and Guadalupes. Flocks of these turquoise-blue birds — which are the models for the Twitter logo — are mingling with the region's resident western bluebirds.

These visitors are primarily seed-eaters that live in coniferous forests across western North America. Riley suspects that, right now, they can't find the food they need in their normal ranges.

“I think they're seeking out better food resources for winter,” she said. “Winter can be a harsh time, just because insect populations are really low, and they have to revert to more plant-based diets. And you go where the plants have water. I think our conditions have improved the last two years, compared to what they have been, and the Western states are still in the grips of a pretty serious drought.”

It's a phenomenon known as “irruption” — when large numbers of birds move beyond their typical ranges. It's not apt to last. Pinyon jays, for example, nest in early March, and the Limpia Crossing flock will probably head north in the coming weeks. But in the meantime, there's the chance to spot and admire these birds, and a host of other unusual winter visitors.

“These irruptions, because they happen so sporadically,” Riley said, “are an opportunity for us to celebrate, I think, birds that we don't normally get to have, to see much more diversity, and perhaps make us all a little bit more aware that these great creatures are out there.”

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.