Pinyon Jay, Grand Canyon’s Forester

Pinyon Jay, Grand Canyon’s Forester

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

PinyonJay.Sallyking-NatlparkService

PINYON JAY (photo credit: Sally King / National park Service)

“And herein is that saying true:  one sowth and another reapeth.”  (John 4:37)

A wonderful way to appreciate the catastrophic impact of the Genesis Flood is to visit the Grand Canyon, in northern Arizona, a warm and arid panorama in America’s Great West. However, if you visit that grandiose canyonland, don’t rush off too quickly! Also visit a nearby testimony of God’s caring involvement in our world, the ‘pygmy forest’ just south of the Grand Canyon’s southern rim.

In addition to juniper evergreens, you will find short, scrubby trees called pinyon pines. They produce pine cones containing edible seeds. Maybe you don’t like to eat pinyon pine seeds, but an interesting blue-and-grey bird does. The pinyon jay is famous for eating its favorite fare — pinyon pine seeds.

But that is not the only relationship between the pinyon pine and the pinyon jay. The pinyon jay is also a type of forester, a tree farmer—the pinyon jay actually plants pinyon pines. But how?

Pinyon pine seeds are not planted by bird droppings, the way hard-coated seeds (such as indigestible cherry ‘pits’) are dropped out the ‘back door’ of flying birds, mixed with natural fertilizer. Bird droppings are one method God designed for some tree planting, but that is not the method He provided for planting pinyon pine trees.

Rather, the pinyon tree slowly manufactures large pine cones with seeds having a very thin seed coat. In fact, this coat is so thin that it allows a seed-eating bird to eat it and to digest the entire seed—so there is no left-over, plantable ‘pit’ (to be dropped from the birds) thereafter. Thus, once a pinyon seed is eaten by a pinyon jay (or by a Clark’s nutcracker, chipmunk, pine cone moth, or pine cone beetle) that’s it!

So how do the birds help plant the next generation of pine trees?

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PINYON JAY on PINYON PINE (photo by Cagan Sekercioglu)

God carefully bioengineered (i.e., programmed) these birds to hide more seeds in the soil than they will subsequently eat.

The jays have an expandable pouch in which they can carry up to 56 seeds. So, a flock of 200 jays can quickly harvest 10,000 or more seeds from a stand of pinyon pine trees, especially if the trees have put out a ‘bumper crop’ of seeds (which the trees historically do, about every six years on average). The birds eat what they immediately need in order to survive, and then they bury the rest in the soil for future needs.

This periodic ‘bumper crop’ of pinyon pine seeds, and their burial by pinyon jays, has been studied for years. Says Dr. John Kricher, an American forest ecologist:

“At one well-documented site in the Southwest, pinyon seed bonanzas occurred in 1936, 1943, 1948, 1954, 1959, 1965, 1969 and 1974. In intervening years, seed crops were dramatically less. Pinyons in most areas have this roughly 6-year interval between heavy seed crops. …  Jays bury pinyon seeds—lots of pinyon seeds. In one study it was estimated that from September through January, a flock of 250 pinyon jays buried about 4.5 million pinyon seeds! They do not bury the seeds just anywhere. The jays tend to cache [hide] seeds in open areas, selecting sites near brush piles or fallen trees.” [Quoting John C. Kricher, A FIELD GUIDE TO THE ECOLOGY OF WESTERN FORESTS, Houghton Mifflin, New York, pages. 147–149.]

Thus, the jays even plant the seeds in places just right for new tree growth.

If the birds planted seeds at the base of tall, healthy trees, those trees would shield the new seedling from needed sunlight, and would likely absorb the scarce rainfall of this area, so the new sprouts would fail to thrive. Also, being planted near brush or fallen trees provides these seedlings with protection from gusty desert winds which might otherwise tear them out of the soil.

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PINYON JAY perching (Audubon Field Guide)

When winter comes, the pinyon jays harvest many of their carefully hidden pinyon seeds. Many more, however, go unharvested. These seeds, forgotten by jays, become the next generation of pinyon pines.

Is this a picture of tooth-and-claw, selfish, survival-of-the-fittest accident-produced ‘evolution’? Hardly! This coöperative relationship between bird and tree, called ‘mutualistic symbiosis’ (or ‘mutual aid’) by ecologists, is the kind of system-ordered harmony God originally designed into His good creation. In fact even after the Fall, nature still displays more coöperation than competition.

The creation sings out an ecological symphony of praise to its Creator, the Lord Jesus Christ. Job instructs us to accept the teaching of the beasts and the birds, for such wildlife—by their very traits, behaviors, and generational cycles—instruct us with the answer to this question:

‘Who knoweth not in all these that the hand of the LORD hath wrought this?’ [Quoting Job 12:9]


[ The preceding avian ecology highlight was originally published as “Providential Planting: The Pinyon Jay,” Creation Ex Nihilo, 19 (3): 24-25 (summer 1997).  At present (AD2018), it now appears online at https://answersingenesis.org/evidence-for-creation/providential-planting/ .  Slight editing was added by the author prior to re-posting here.  It should be noted that the Lord Jesus once used ravens (not Pinyon Jays — Matthew 6:26, clarified by Luke 12:24) as an example of a bird-kind that did not sow seeds for its own food — please see “Hidden Assumptions Play ‘Hide-and-Seek’:  Using Context and Clarification to ‘Tag’ Bible Critics”, ACTS & FACTS, 39(6):8-9 (June 2010), now posted at http://www.icr.org/article/hidden-assumptions-play-hide-seek-using .   ><>  JJSJ  profjjsj@aol.com ]

Pinyon-Jay.Wiki-photo

PINYON JAY (Wikipedia photograph)


 

CLIFF SWALLOWS: Faithful as Mates, Migrants, and Mud-home Masons

CLIFF  SWALLOWS:  FAITHFUL  AS   MATES,  MIGRANTS,  AND  MUD-MASONS

Dr. James J. S. Johnson

Thine own friend, and thy father’s friend, forsake not; neither go into thy brother’s house in the day of thy calamity: for better is a neighbor that is near than a brother far off.  (Proverbs 27:10)

Alongside a rocky hillside outcropping, or under a montane cliff overhang, the mud-home “condominiums” of the Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) reveal the presence of this gregarious and aerial-acrobatic bug-eater.

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CLIFF SWALLOW inside mud-nest

National Park Service photo / public domain

On June 29th of AD1996, by Colter Bay Village Marina, in Grand Tetons National Park (Wyoming), I saw some of these, and considered how their colonial nests reminded me of the riparian (i.e., riverbank) Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia) burrows that I had seen (2 days earlier) along banks of the Snake River.

Like other swallows, the Cliff Swallow speedily zips and arcs and dives through the air, snatching and consuming many “meals on wings” – veritable “fast food” – gulping down airborne insects, again and again.  (The Cliff Swallow supplements its insectivorous diet with berries and other fruits.)

However, the Cliff Swallow’s claim to fame is their colonial mud-home masonry.

“Hundreds of gourd-shaped “mud jugs” plastered to the side of a barn or under a bridge or highway overpass are a typical [colonial] nesting territory for these highly adaptable birds. Farmers heartily welcome this [summer] resident because it eats numerous flying insects that are harmful to crops. Nesting colonies may number from 800 to more than 1,000 birds. Note the dark rusty brown throat, and in flight the brown underwing linings, cinnamon buff rump, [characteristic] square tail, dusky cinnamon undertail coverts with dark centers, and whitish buff edged feathers of back and tertials. Juveniles have dusky brown upperparts and paler underparts. This [bluish-brown-black-backed] swallow has successfully expanded its range in the [American] Southwest and the West. The southwestern race [i.e., variety] displays a cinnamon forehead similar to the Cave Swallow.”

[Quoting Frederick J. Alsop III, BIRDS OF TEXAS (Smithsonian Handbooks, 2002), page 363.]  Cliff Swallows closely resemble Cave Swallows (Petrochelidon fulca), but Cave Swallows have a “pale cinnamon-buff throat”, cinnamon-rust-hued throat, and a “richer cinnamon-rust rump”, according to Alsop [at page 363].  Another similar-looking swallow is the deeply-forked-tailed Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica) which often colonizes the inside of rural barns (as well as in places where Cliff Swallows build nests) all over America’s Lower 48 states.

In fact, these 3 varieties of swallows — Cliff Swallow, Cave Swallow, and Barn Swallow – are known to hybridize, so there is no need to fret over which species name you assign to one of these swallows.   [For documented examples of these mud-homebuilding swallow hybridizations, as well as many other swallow and martin hybridizations, see Dr. Eugene M. McCarthy’s HANDBOOK OF AVIAN HYBRIDS OF THE WORLD (Oxford University Press, 2006), pages 253-255.]

Other forms of “hybrid” mixing occur, involving other types of social interaction, such as the neighborliness known as “helping”:

NEST HELPERS occur among many species, including certain kingfishers, hawks, jays, tanagers, and wrens. Helpers are generally younger adults that assist their parents in rearing nestlings. . . . Helpers generally do all of the usual nest-associated behaviors, such as building nests, incubating eggs, guarding nestlings, cleaning the nest, and feeding young. With such help, it’s not surprising that several studies have shown that [parental] pairs with nest helpers can rear more young than those without helpers. . . . While most helpers assist their parents [with the care of younger siblings], there are also many examples of adults feeding young of different species. Parent Barn Swallows may, for example, feed fledgling Cliff Swallows. Robins have been known to feed young grackles.”

[Quoting Stephen W. Kress, BIRD LIFE: A GUIDE TO THE BEHAVIOR AND BIOLOGY OF BIRDS (Racine:  Golden Press, 1991), page 54, with emphasis added.]

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CLIFF SWALLOW on mud-home nest

Photo credit: What-When-How.com Tutorials

The Cliff Swallow takes all of its social relationships seriously – they are characteristically monogamous, sometimes rearing 2 broods in one breeding season, and they live gregariously in large colonies. [See Stan Tekiela, BIRDS OF TEXAS FIELD GUIDE (Adventure Publications, 2004), page 125.]  Also, they share information about where to get food.  When some of these swallows observe other fellow-colonist swallows returning with food for their young, indicating the successful sourcing of food, those watching follow suit, following the “winners” to the place where food is readily available.

Professor Alsop describes the Cliff Swallow’s homebuilding hallmark as the construction of “one of the most complex swallow nests: a sphere of mud pellets with a tubular entrance on one side”.  [Quoting Alsop, BIRDS OF TEXAS, cited above, page 363.]  Unsurprisingly, Cliff Swallow nesting colonies are located near water, since water is needed by both the swallows and their insect prey.  Little mud-balls used for nest-building, carried serially during nest construction, may be acquired from mud sources a mile away.

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CLIFF SWALLOWS acquiring mud for nest-building

Photo credit: Cameron Rognan / Flickr

These swallows migrate, breeding all over Texas, often returning each spring to last year’s nesting sites. In fact, Cliff Sparrow migratory punctuality is famous:

THE TIMING OF MIGRATION is [phenologically] linked to the length of day [i.e., daylight hours]. As day-length increases with the advancing spring [season], birds develop a nocturnal restlessness called “zugunruhe” [from 2 German words meaning move/migration and anxiety/restlessness]. Increased exposure to daylight leads males and females to higher hormone levels that trigger the urge to migrate [northward from South America]. Migration becomes a predictable event. Cliff Swallows of San Juan Capistrano Mission in southern California and Turkey Vultures of Hinkley, Ohio [not to be confused with Hinckley, Minnesota – “where the men are men, pansies are flowers, and the women are slightly above average”] , are noted for their punctual spring arrivals. The spring arrivals of many backyard birds, such as American Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds are equally punctual.”

[Quoting Stephen W. Kress, BIRD LIFE: A GUIDE TO THE BEHAVIOR AND BIOLOGY OF BIRDS (Racine:  Golden Press, 1991), page 108.  Regarding zugunruhe and photoperiod analysis, see Eberhard Gwinner, “Circannual Rhythms in Bird Migration”, Annual Review of Ecology & Systematics, 8(1):381-404 (1977), posted at http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev.es.08.110177.002121 — with an acknowledgement that “internal annual clocks” had been demonstrated earlier in hibernating Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels.]

Like other swallows, the Cliff Swallow speedily eats many “meals on wings”  –  veritable “fast food”  –  catching and eating insects in the air.  The Cliff Swallow supplements its insectivorous diet with berries and other fruits.

Thus, the Cliff Swallow is faithful in mating (i.e., avian “marriage” and parenting), faithful in migrating (i.e., in the phenological punctuality of its spring migrations), and faithful in its mud-home masonry tradition. Cliff Swallows are famous for sharing and living together in harmony – like good neighbors.

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