The Gila National Forest in New Mexico is celebrating its 100th year as not only a national forest but as the first designated wilderness in the world. The forest is home to many ecologically important plant and animal species, including the pinyon jay.
With support from Pattern Energy, research was recently completed, giving fresh insights into the pinyon jay’s population and behaviors across the entire Gila National Forest.
The Pinyon Jay’s Important Work
The pinyon jay is described as a “gregarious bird,” meaning it is social and loud. It is blue except for a white area on its chest and is found throughout Western North America. About one-third of the total population of the species live in New Mexico.
The population of pinyon jays throughout the species range has been in steady decline for decades. The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish lists the pinyon jay as an immediate priority Species of Greatest Conservation Need. The US Fish and Wildlife Service lists it as a Species of Conservation Concern and is currently reviewing whether the species should be designated as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
Pinyon pines, found across large parts of the Southwest, count on the pinyon pay to survive. The jay eats seeds from the trees and stores more of them in underground caches to eat later. The caches and the everyday activity of the birds are critical to the pinyon pine’s spread. Pinyon jays are the only way pinyon pines can germinate at higher elevations, which is critical for the tree and the ecosystem it supports as it migrates to higher elevations due to the progression of climate change.
The pinyon jay also relies on the pinyon pine as a major food source and nesting habitat.
Ecologists use the term “keystone relationship” to describe the reliance pinyon trees have on pinyon jays to support the spread of the species.
John and Lynn Wickersham are the cofounders of Animas Biological Studies. They specialize in field work studying different species of birds. From 2021 to 2023, the team conducted surveys of the pinyon jay population in Gila National Forest. The results of the team’s multiyear study can be read here.
The study is the first systematic breeding season population survey of the pinyon jay in the Gila National Forest. Among other things, the team documented nest sites and identified population concentrations and breeding areas.
“Pinyon jays are social,” Wickersham says. “When nesting, birds born the year before will often assist other birds in caring for the young, sort of like on-the-job training for when they nest the following year and have babies of their own.”
Key challenges the birds face include wildfires and the effects of climate change on pinyon trees. When the trees aren’t thriving, their canopies are less full, and they produce fewer cones. This puts pressure on the pinyon jay, which relies on the trees for habitat and food.
“Some years, if there isn’t a good cone crop, the pinyon jays won’t nest, further putting pressure on their numbers,” Wickersham says. When there are fewer seeds, fewer birds are likely to be born than in times of seed abundance.
The report Wickersham and her colleagues prepared covers the results of their three-year study. It was shared with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and Natural Heritage New Mexico.
Wickersham says, “The Gila National Forest is a big, important ecosystem, and pinyon jays are the key species to maintaining the health of these forests.”
Pattern Energy is proud to have sponsored the work of Animas Biological Studies to better understand the pinyon jay and its role in the ecology of New Mexico.