Birding: Tips for deterring the Pinyon Jay
WILD ABOUT BIRDS
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist
I know, I know, I don’t care for them too much either. Boy, can they be a nuisance!
I am talking about both Pinyon Jays and European Starlings. They seem to come to our feeders in large flocks, take over, and consume all of the birdseed in a matter of minutes. Luckily, they are not usually at our feeders year-round.
The Pinyon Jay is a highly social, cooperative-breeding, seed-caching bird found in the foothills and lower mountain slopes of the western and southwestern United States. Although omnivorous, this bird is committed to the harvesting, transporting, caching, and later retrieval of pine seeds, aided by a relatively long, strong bill; an expandable esophagus; and long, strong wings. Individual birds also have excellent spatial memories that allow them uncanny recovery accuracy when digging up their hidden food stores months after caching, even through snow.
This bird is named for the pinon pines of western North America. In this area, they are usually found in higher elevations (like on top of the Colorado National Monument and in Glade Park areas). The large, heavy seeds of these pines are dispersed long distances on the wings of the Pinyon Jay, which reaps the eventual reward of a food source rich in energy and nutrients.
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During the winter, as the availability of pine nuts is depleted or covered with snow, the Pinyon Jays come to lower elevations in search of food. Our birdfeeders are a perfect target.
Social organization is complex in these jays, with permanent flocks that may contain more than 500 individual birds. Many spend their entire lives in their natal flocks. Individuals that do disperse — mostly females before they are one year of age — generally travel short distances. These birds may live up to 16 years of age in the wild or in captivity. Although permanent residents, in years when cone crops fail, individuals often fly far from their normal range, making them one of the truly “irruptive” species of North American birds.
The Pinyon Jay is a colonial nester that commences breeding in the cold of winter in areas where pinon pine-cone seed crops were abundant the previous autumn. They are one of the earliest nesting passerines (perching birds) in the United States. Nests are bulky and well-insulated, often placed on the south side of tree foliage. Nest are usually one to a tree and scattered throughout a traditional breeding ground that is used almost every year.
At some nests, yearling males help feed their brothers and sisters. Young from multiple nests gather in “crèches,” which may number in the hundreds of individuals, where they are fed predominantly by their parents; this requires the recognition of their own young within the crèche. In these crèches, young birds preen each other, exert dominance over their associates, and are subject to severe predation.
Some federal and state agencies have had a systematic, well-funded program for more than 60 years to eradicate large areas of this species’ normal habitat, piñon-juniper woodland, and turn it into pasture land for grazing cattle.
If you would like to deter them from your feeders, changing the type of seed usually won’t work. The best solution I have found is to limit the size of the landing or perching area on your feeders. Obviously, tray feeders should be removed until the jays are gone. If you have a tube feeder with a tray on the bottom, try removing the tray.
A Pinyon Jay is a pretty large bird and usually can’t fit on a perch and eat the seed. You can also put a cage around a tube feeder, which eliminates the larger birds from accessing the seed but allows the smaller birds to fly through the holes in the cage to the tube feeder. If you have a hopper feeder, you might try wrapping a bungee cord (or several if necessary) around the feeder, reducing the size of the landing area. A bungee cord is easy to detach for filling the feeder. A last ditch effort would be to remove or not fill the feeders for several days in hopes the jays will find another feeding source.
Thank you to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for some of the information in this article.
In my next column, I will discuss the European Starling.
Local bird expert and GJ Free Press columnist Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50. Email your bird-feeding and birding questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and he’ll answer them in his bi-weekly Q&A column.
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