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Pinyon jays are rapidly declining. A USU researcher wants to know why

Rory Eggleston, avian researcher, holds up a captured blue and grey bird, a Pinyon Jay. There is a scrub forest in the background and the bird will be soon released.
Will Harrod
Avian researcher Rory Eggleston holds up a captured Pinyon Jay in Box Elder county, Utah, before measuring and releasing it.

“If you live near pinyon-juniper woodlands, there's a good chance that you've seen or heard pinyon jays even if you didn't know that's what they were. Some people call them squawkers or blue crows. They're extremely gregarious when they're around," says Rory Eggleston.

Eggleston is a PhD student in Dave Dahlgren and Eric Thacker's labs at the Quinney College of Natural Resources at USU. Her research focuses on habitat selection and movement in pinyon jays, especially as it relates to pinyon-juniper removal treatments and wildfire recovery. But in order to study the jays, she needs to catch and band them first.

“So that involves putting metal and plastic color bands on their legs for ID purposes. And then if they weigh enough, then we can put a GPS transmitter on them, which allows us to collect accurate locations of where the birds are flying,” Eggleston says.

Working mostly in Northwest Utah and Southern Idaho, Eggleston and her team of field technicians are studying the decline of pinyon jays that began with the loss of over 3 million acres of pinyon woodlands in the 1950s and 60s. However, since then, pinyon-juniper woodlands have begun to rebound, but the pinyon jays have not. Eggleston wants to know why.

Picture shows researcher Rory Eggleston and her team of avian technicians. They are sitting around a picnic table in the cold with numerous tools used for bird banding, attaching GPS trackers and weighing birds. Also pictured with Rory Eggleston are Jared Mohlman, Thomas Kroot, and Ben Zimmermann.
Photo by Ryan Helcoski
Researcher Rory Eggleston and her team of avian technicians. From left to right: Rory Eggleston, Jared Mohlman, Thomas Kroot, and Ben Zimmermann

“And so really, what our goal here is, is to first figure out where the jays are, where they're breeding, ideally, where they're roosting, where they're caching pine nuts, things like that, and then see where they're selecting habitat,” she says.

This is important because in the area where Eggleston works, there are ongoing pinyon-juniper removal treatments where some tree canopies are removed to provide habitat for bird species like greater sage grouse, brewers sparrows and sage thrashers.

“But we don't really know what those removal treatments are doing for the jays, whether they're impacting them and maybe contributing in some way to this decline," she says.

Eggleston hopes that in learning more about pinyon jays, she and her team can better understand their decline, and eventually provide management suggestions.

Management is especially important now, as there are proposals at the federal level to list them under the Federal Endangered Species Act.