This cool-toned bird is dusty blue-gray, darker at the head, and paler down the body. It has no crest; a long, straight, sharp bill, and a short tail. Its blue underparts distinguish it from other crestless jays, which are pale gray or whitish. It flies with stiff, strong, rapid wingbeats, sometimes high in the sky, but it can also be seen foraging on the ground. It is almost always found in flocks. Males and females look alike.
Pinyon jays have a variety of vocalizations depending upon their circumstance. Most frequent is their crow-like kaw.
Look for pinyon jays in pinyon-pine forests and open pinyon-juniper habitats throughout the West, from southern Montana to southeastern Colorado, as far south as Southern Arizona and New Mexico, and as far west as the Pacific coast. Although considered nonmigratory, the species irrupts when food becomes scarce, often in the fall. Then, look for them in pine and oak forests within their range.
The primary food source for pinyon jays is pine seeds, just like those we use in pesto recipes. They also eat other seeds and berries, especially juniper berries, and small animals, including reptiles, nestling birds, and mammals. They can be lured to birdfeeders with sunflower seeds, suet, cracked corn, or peanuts.
The pinyon jay is one of the earliest nesting passerines in the United States. Nests are usually built on the south side of ponderosa pine, pinyon pine, or junipers trees, but always in a location that had a good crop of pine seeds the previous fall. The cup-shaped nest is made of sticks and grasses, and lined with softer materials. Clutch size ranges from two to five. Incubation lasts about 17 days, and fledging occurs about three weeks after hatching. Sometimes, they breed cooperatively, with young of the previous year helping their parents with younger birds.
Pinyon jays have an expandable esophagus, allowing them to carry up to 40 pine seeds at one time. They frequently cache food items for later consumption.