Magazine article American Forests

The Pine & the Jay

Magazine article American Forests

The Pine & the Jay

Article excerpt

There's more than symbiosis going on between these two denizens of the Southwest. By TERRY HEINER

The October afternoon is quiet, the pinon pine forest seemingly dozing in the autumn sun under a clear blue New Mexico sky. The air is filled with a resinous pine scent, and an occasional breeze whispers through the needles, lightly shaking the cones that are opening in the warm afternoon air. The more vigorous breezes are followed by the pitter-patter of pinon seeds falling to the ground.

The afternoon tranquility is suddenly shattered by the clamoring racket of a flock of several dozen blue pinon jays screeching to each other as they swoop into the forest. Landing in the tops of the pines, they begin to pluck the dark, plump seeds from the sticky cones. Storing the seeds in their throats, they fly away to hide them in secret locations before returning to repeat the process.

This scene has been repeated in New Mexico for probably thousands of years, and benefits both the pinon and the pinon jay.

A complex and fascinating interdependent relationship exists between the pine and the bird (including both the gregarious pinon jay and the more solitary scrub jay). The reproductive cycle of the jay seemingly coincides with the ripening of the seed crops of the pine; likewise, the pine depends on the jay for the dissemination of its seeds.

Over thousands of years of evolution, the jay may have played a major role in the selection of pinon seed characteristics, including its large size. When scrub jays are allowed to choose from pinon seeds of differing sizes, they invariably select the larger ones first. Seedlings from those seeds will experience greater success, and the next generation will tend to produce larger seeds.

Another characteristic of the pinon seed is the absence of a wing. Pines of other species whose seeds are not harvested and planted by birds have seeds that are small and have wings that assist in wind dispersal. Not so with the pinon.

With their probe-like bill, the jays plant the pinon seeds in the soft ground under the canopy of other trees, to be stored for later consumption. jays have been observed to transport seeds from as little as a few feet to as far away as several miles. Early observers often found pinon seedlings growing beneath other tree species, far from any seed source, and wondered how the seed reached such distant sites. …

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