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A Wyoming museum is leading a study on the declining pinyon jay population

A group of pinyon jay birds in a tree
Kathy Lichtendahl
Project collaborator Eric Atkinson, who is an Associate Professor of Biology at Northwest College, says pinyon jays are "gregarious, very vocal. You almost always hear them before you see them."

The pinyon jay, a blue, robin-sized bird, can help some species of pine trees regenerate by spreading seeds across the landscape. But the bird’s population is declining and researchers want to know more.

The Draper Natural History Museum at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West is leading a study of how many pinyon jays are in the Bighorn Basin and looking at where the birds nest and forage.

Corey Anco is the museum’s curator. He says other surveys show an 85 percent drop in the pinyon jay population over the past 50 years.

“Furthermore, the decline is higher in Wyoming than any other state that data has been collected for the species,” he said during a recent lecture given at the Center of the West.

Wildlife biologist Destin Harrell with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is one of the project’s collaborators. He says while a lot of attention is given to sage grouse habitat, the pinyon jay tends to get overlooked.

“I think this study could help develop some guidelines for how we can find that right balance of vegetation treatments and conservation measures that can benefit both sage grouse and pinyon jay,” he said.

The FWS is currently reviewing a petition to list the pinyon jay as an endangered species. The Associated Press reports the bird's population is declining more rapidly than the greater sage grouse.

The Bureau of Land Management awarded the pinyon jay study $150,000. Project partners include the BLM, Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology at the University of California Davis, Northwest College and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Fieldwork for the study began in March. It aims to be a multi-year effort, with results anticipated at the earliest in 2027.

There is a citizen scientist component of the study. The Draper Natural History Museum wants to hear from people who have seen pinyon jays at their bird feeders, and learn about where people have spotted the songbirds in Park County. To request instructions and a data sheet, email DNHMSampling@centerofthewest.org.

Olivia Weitz is based at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody. She covers Yellowstone National Park, wildlife, and arts and culture throughout the region. Olivia’s work has aired on NPR and member stations across the Mountain West. She is a graduate of the University of Puget Sound and the Transom story workshop. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, cooking, and going to festivals that celebrate folk art and music.
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