With the holidays approaching, I find myself looking for more creative places to hide presents each year.
When trying to break the news about Santa Claus to my oldest son a few years ago, he responded by saying, “It’s OK, Mom, I found all my presents a few years ago and didn’t have the heart to tell you.”
Perhaps it’s this built-in ability that kids seem to have for finding presents in the best of hiding places that makes me associate the holidays with one of my favorite birds: the pinyon jay.
Pinyon jays remain in Colorado throughout the entire year and are prevalent at the Nature Center because of its piñon pine and juniper habitat. Pinyon jays, which look like large bluebirds, have a special symbiotic relationship with the piñon pines. Neither could exist without the other.
Unlike other pine trees, whose cones open up to release seeds that can be carried by the wind to other locations, piñon pinecones remain closed with wingless seeds that would quickly turn rancid if just dropped from the tree. Instead, piñon pines rely on the pinyon jay for their survival.
The pinyon jay removes the seeds from the pinecones. The jays are especially equipped with an expandable esophagus that can hold up to 56 seeds at a time. Perhaps Santa has a similar adaptation or copied the pinyon jay when designing his uniquely expandable toy sack. Again, a plug for making the pinyon jay the unofficial symbol of Christmas cheer. The jay then carries seeds to be cached, or buried, for leaner times in the winter.
For pinyon jays, every day is like the holidays. They don’t just gather once or twice a year with their extended family for special occasions, they live in mostly permanent flocks of about 250 birds. They are noisy and gregarious, with their call sounding a lot like laughter. A flock of 50 to 500 jays would be able to cache as many as 4.5 million seeds in one year.
The amazing thing about pinyon jays is their ability to recover cached seeds. In one study, a flock of jays recovered 95 percent of the seeds that they cached, leaving 5 percent to grow into new trees. The jays bury seeds at the perfect depth for them to grow into trees.
Biologists think these highly intelligent birds are able to find seeds through a process called triangulation. They use objects such as rocks, shrubs and trees to remember the location of the seeds that they bury. The question remains whether children use triangulation or sheer will to find hidden presents, but regardless, they share a unique ability with the pinyon jay for honing in on hidden caches.
It is said by some that every piñon tree was planted by a pinyon jay. But, it is a long wait before the birds can benefit from this good deed. It takes about 25 years for a piñon pine to start bearing cones, so a pinyon jay cannot eat from the crops that they plant but must rely on the harvests provided by their ancestors.
Piñon pines are not the best choice of trees for humans to use for holiday trimming. But, a more perfect Christmas tree could not be found for the beautiful and specialized pinyon jay.