Changes In Attitudes, Changes In Altitudes…To Save The Pinyon Jay and Clark’s Nutcracker

October 2022

It’s those changes in latitudes,

changes in attitudes nothing remains quite the same.

With all of our running and all of our cunning,

If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.

Jimmy Buffett

For my earlier article on pinyon trees and pine nuts, see: https://hooknfly.com/2015/10/18/pinon-pine-nuts-pulse-of-the-land-2/

I’ve been a confirmed amateur birdwatcher and avian connoisseur since the tender age of 10.  In 1950s Dad would take my sister and me birdwatching after church as Mom prepared dinner (dinner was the big noon meal on Sundays).  My little hometown of Buhler, located on the Great Plains in south central Kansas, is smack dab in the middle of the huge Central Flyway, a major bird migration route.  So in addition to local favorites like meadowlarks, red-headed woodpeckers, and scissor-tailed flycatchers, we also got to see some beautiful and interesting itinerants like goldfinches, cedar waxwings, and rose-breasted grosbeaks as well as lots of ducks.  I got my got first little bird book then and soon thereafter as a gift, membership in the Audubon Society accompanied by a weighty tome, the Audubon Guide to North American Birds.  It is still a prized possession that brings with it many good memories.

My First Bird Book

I’ve continue my ardor for birds six decades later at my cabin in the Colorado high country near Salida where I have been enjoying feeding birds, providing nesting boxes, and watching my winged friends up close—gorgeous western tanagers, bluebirds, hairy and downy woodpeckers, evening and black-headed grosbeaks as well as little buddies like mountain chickadees, nuthatches, and towhees.  Then there are the golden eagles soaring high above. Here are some of my favorites, close up.

But as my human friends know, I have been having a running battle for several years with pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers, large birds that are members of the jay/crow family, who raid the suet and sunflower seed feeders in large bands, chasing away smaller birds amidst a raucous sideshow on my front porch.  When I’m inside and spot the gluttons through my big front windows, I creep stealthily to the front door, then in a flurry throw it open and run screaming onto the porch like a madman, scattering the noisy robbers.  Here is an array of my antagonists!

Of course, they are usually back before too long.  They have incredible eyesight and can see through the big front windows as I slink to the front door. To the amusement of occasional visitors who have witnessed the skirmish, it’s actually become something of a sporting exercise routine for this retired old codger.

But recently I have experienced a major change in attitude about these critters.  I happened to read an article about the pinon jays documenting how it is now being listed as a threatened species and the Clark’s nutcracker (first observed and named by William Clark of Lewis and Clark expedition fame in 1805 along the Salmon River in Washington) is experiencing a precipitous decline in parts of its range, likely due to climate change reducing the forests they rely on.  I was saddened to learn there are only about 700,000 pinyon jays left in the entire world, an astounding decline of 85% over the past 50 years.  For comparison’s sake, Mother Earth is inhabited by almost 8 billion humans!  Both birds call the high-country home year-round, and they are smart and inquisitive, befitting their membership in the jay/crow family. 

They are also noisy and rambunctious, with shrill rasping calls that sound like “kraal, kraal.”  I have named my favorite local Clark’s nutcracker Griswold in keeping with his boisterous antics. 

In my neck of the woods, they rely heavily on pinyon trees for sustenance—pine nuts. And in turn, the pinyon trees rely on the jays and nutcrackers to help reseed and spread the forest. Both have big spear-like beaks to probe cones to get to the seeds, and then crack them to get to the nuts. The Clark’s have a big pouch under their tongues that can hold up to 150 seeds.

Chow Time–A Pinyon Cone With A Seed Remaining

Both the jays and nutcrackers bury the seeds for food during the harsh high-altitude winters.  One study in New Mexico estimated that a flock of pinyon jays there cached 4.5 million seeds in a year!  Other research has shown that they can remember where they buried the seeds for six months and more.  But when they forget, the seeds can sprout, rejuvenating and spreading the forest reach

The pinyon tree is the foundation species in this ecosystem—everything is built upon it. 

Pinyon-Juniper Forest Above My Cabin

In addition to the pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers, rodents feast on the seeds and are in turn food for the coyotes, owls, hawks….you get the picture. The birds and rodents help spread the seeds far and wide. Because of the dry climate and generally poor soil in this region, the trees produce seeds only once every four to ten years on a rotating basis so that about one in five has cones every year.

Incredibly, in the 1950s and 60s, government ecologists declared pinyon and juniper trees as invasive species that were destroying grassland and wasting precious water.  And more grasslands would mean more cattle, more money for local economies, etc.  They gave the green light to uprooting millions of acres of the trees by chaining—a process that ripped the trees out along with just about anything else in the vicinity.  The massacre was actually recounted in a documentary narrated by Robert Redford, Broken Treaty At Battle Mountain.  Not surprisingly, the wholesale destruction of these foundation species was an ecological disaster for all the myriad species that relied on them.  Here are just a few examples of the devastation

Today climate change, spraying of pesticides, and residential development are taking their toll on pinyon and juniper stands.  In some states like Nevada and Utah, federal and state agencies continue to rip out pinyon and juniper forests to promote grasslands, while in others there is an effort to protect areas used by pinyon jays and Clark’s nutcrackers. Environmental groups are turning up the heat for conservation measures.  Hopefully it isn’t too late. 

That’s where my change in attitude comes in.  Rather than clashing with the pinyon jays and nutcrackers in the daily battle of the bird feeders, I will welcome them.  Indeed, I will add a few more feeders, hoping the bears don’t notice.  I will make sure the pinyon and nutcracker nesting/roosting areas on my land that can harbor 15-50 birds are left undisturbed.  In periods of drought, becoming more prevalent in my neck of Colorado, I will dutifully lug pails of water to the forest of pinyon and juniper trees that cover the slopes around the cabin if I see some browning on the top branches, hoping it will help see them through tough times. 

And that leads me to my change in altitude.  For many years in my professional career as a land use attorney and planner consulting with local governments around the United States I flew back and forth across the United States.  One air route from Denver to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and southern California that I took often flew high above my cabin a hundred miles southwest of Denver, but I could still just barely see my town of Salida and homestead a few miles away as I jetted over.  It was a comforting thought to be looking down on that peaceful piece of territory.  Today as I sip wine on the porch at the end of the day, I can see the multiple contrails above me from planes flying the same route, the sign of our ever busy society.

Up,Up And Away–My Former Life Painted In Contrails.

On those trips I worked with communities to improve their development codes, among other things to protect wildlife habitat, sensitive ecosystems, and historic buildings. My colleagues and I preached the gospel of sustainable development and helped write and update regulations and incentives to promote solar and wind energy, affordable housing, water conservation, and the like. Those were exciting and fulfilling days. We were trying to do our small part to save the world.

But as time passes, I see the need to focus closer in my own backyard and change my altitude from a bird’s eye view of saving the world to one closer to ground level, to the 35 acres I call home.  When I first bought my place some 25 years ago, I planted over 100 pinyon and juniper trees that were distributed free at the time as part of a government program.  It was back-breaking work digging holes for them in this rocky landscape.  But because this is a harsh, high-desert climate, despite occasional watering and fertilizing over the years, today only about 10 survive.  After 25 years, those survivors range in height from just 4-6 feet! I’m proud of each and every one of them!

Now I will focus more attention on them, thinking of future generations of pinyon jays and nutcracker that will feast on their bounty as my granddaughter Aly, all grown up by then, watches from the porch. I’ll do some clipping to give them some growing room when rabbit brush and other bushes crowd too close. If the drought continues, they’ll get more periodic watering.

When I see a mature pinon tree close to the cabin starting to bear cones, I’ll give it an extra drink of water. I will remove weeds, bushes, and tinder from under its bows to help it survive a wildfire. Those mature 25-foot tall trees can be pushing 200 years old or more. The granddaddy pinyon growing right next to the porch where the small birds like to perch and eat sunflower seeds is a giant, probably over 300 years old. I choke up a bit when I think that this grand tree, now in my care, was growing before the American Revolution and that the native Ute Indians probably harvested seeds from it to make the rich, nourishing gruel that saw them through the winters long ago. And here it is today, healthy and providing sustenance and shelter to the pinyon jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, and other birds. I have the obligation to make sure it continues to thrive. Healthy pinyon trees can last a thousand years!

And occasionally I may even attend local public hearings on the type of sprawling rural subdivision the county can’t seem to just say “NO” to, hoping that at least they will require the development to preserve as much of the pinyon and juniper forest as possible and maybe even plant trees to compensate for any removed. Many progressive jurisdictions across the nation already do that.

And of course, when the raiders come to my bird feeders, a noisy “kraal, kraal” chorus announcing their arrival, I’ll bite my tongue and dutifully deposit another suet cake when they take their leave.