Counting Birds for Preservation

July 7, 2023

The Grand Canyon Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau, initiated the Pinyon Jay project to involve volunteers in wildlife conservation. Pinyon Jays have a symbiotic relationship with pinyon trees, making them a key marker in forest preservation for the pinyon and juniper forests dotting the Colorado Plateau. The project aims to gather data and protect the ecosystem while engaging amateur birders and outdoor enthusiasts, making the project accessible to everyone. By Hannah Robertson. This story is sponsored by CMIT Solutions and Three Rivers Brewery

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If you've gone out hiking or exploring, odds are you've either seen or heard the pinyon jay. Robin-sized bluebirds, pinyon jays are an integral part of the ecosystem of the Pinyon and the Juniper Forest scattered across the Colorado Plateau, a vast area that covers the four corner states. The birds are also serving another purpose, making wildlife conservation accessible to everyone regardless of experience. You're watching the "Local News Network", brought to you by CMIT Solutions and Three Rivers Brewery. I'm Hayley Opsal.

The project initially started actually during 2020 and 2021 when a lot of our opportunities to engage with the community really got, you know, tamped down for obvious reasons. So part of my role here at the Grand Canyon Trust in terms of community engagement is helping run our volunteer program.

The Grand Canyon Trust, an organization dedicated to safeguarding the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau, while supporting the rights of its native peoples, began looking at different projects that could utilize the volunteer base the trust has developed over the years. Enter the pinyon jay.

So this bird species endemic to the Colorado Plateau doesn't migrate off it, like stays here year-round, and is really linked to these trees being present, and especially old growth trees that are producing enough seeds for the jay populations to move around between them. Both are suffering. And so if we can rally volunteers and community scientists who are already out on the landscape recreating, hiking, living, doing their thing to keep an eye out for these birds, we can then advocate for forest protections by saying, "Hey, these birds are intrinsically linked to this ecosystem. They need it."

Pinyon jays share a symbiotic relationship with pinyon trees they call home. The trees provide shelter, protection, and food to the jays. And in return, the pinyon jays help the trees spread seeds. Pinyon jays can cache up to 20,000 seeds in a season. And while they remember 90 to 95% of their caches, the forgotten seeds help the pinyon forest continue to grow and thrive.

And we can use the sort of bird as a proxy protector for large landscape scale protection across the Colorado Plateau where we see these proposed projects. And so you can really hone in on where are these birds utilizing the ecosystem.

Over the course of the last few years, there have been a number of removal operations in and along the Colorado Plateau where the pinyon forests and the pinyon jays primarily live. The projects range from sustainable operations to large scale removal operations with often negative impacts on the surrounding lands and ecosystems. Pinyon Jays have experienced a decline in numbers of the last couple of decades, and while the direct cause is unknown, projects like this are assisting in the gathering of data to develop a better picture of the overall ecosystem. The success of the program is in part due to amateur birders, hikers, bikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts. The program is open to everyone.

The other pieces to know for going out and participating in this project is you probably need a smartphone, which most of us carry anyway. You don't need connectivity during your hike. You can do this all in an offline situation. You need to create an eBird account. We have a pretty incredible training website that we've created with videos and how to and really dynamic interactions, a little training quiz to make sure you're ready to go. And all of that takes about an hour, and so once you go through the training, we're here for you, and I frequently answer email questions, but I'm like very responsive to that. And then you go out and listen for the bird.

Already, data from the Pinyon Jay Project has helped to protect over 30,000 acres of forest in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. Find information and the training materials to start your summer of pinyon jay enjoyment at the Grand Canyon Trust's website. Thank you for watching this edition of "Local News Network". I'm Hayley Opsal.


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