Nature Nugget – The Pinyon Pines

The Pinyon Pines and their Avian Planters

There is a group of eight closely related species of pines growing in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico that are known as pinyon, or piñon, pines. They are short and scrubby trees, most commonly found growing in association with junipers. Pinyon pines generally grow at elevations between 4,500 and 6,500 feet above sea level. This elevation span is above the deserts, grasslands, and sagebrush, but below mountain forests, into which these trees merge. In the southern Rockies, they can sometimes be found growing as high as 9,300 feet above sea level on the warmer, south-facing slopes. Annual precipitation where the pinyon pine grows is 12 to 18 inches. Pinyon pines are rarely more than 20 to 30 feet tall and often much less. They are slow growing and may reach 100 years before producing cones. Their average lifespan is 350 to 450 years, with a few achieving 1,000 years!

Pinyon pines are most famous for their seeds or pine nuts, as they are called. Being 50 percent fat and 25 percent protein, a single pea-sized seed can yield as much as 20 calories. This is important to the wildlife that depends on them for survival through the winter. Many species of wildlife—such as black bears, mule deer, turkeys, porcupines, squirrels, chipmunks, wood rats (pack rats), mice, and many species of passerine birds—feed on the seeds.

The seeds are also important as a staple to many Native American tribes who extensively collect them throughout the pines’ range. The seeds are of immense cultural and economic importance to the tribes who often own the seed harvest rights in many areas. The seeds are sometimes robbed from pack rat nests where they have been stored up in large quantities.

There is a unique relationship between the pinyon pines and several species of jays. The whole pinyon pine ecosystem is dependent upon these relationships. These birds function as types of foresters or tree planters. The most famous of these birds is the pinyon jay. Not only do they love to eat the pinyon pine seeds, but they plant the seeds also.

The jays can carry up to 56 seeds in an expandable pouch in their throats. Pinyon jays occur in large flocks in the fall and winter. A flock of 200 jays can harvest, in minimal time, 10,000 or more seeds from a stand of pinyon pines, especially if the trees are producing a bumper crop of seeds, which they typically do about every six years. The jays quickly eat their fill and start burying seeds in the soil for future needs. They hide many more seeds than they will be able to refind and eat. These overlooked seeds sprout to produce the next generation of pinyon pines.

In one study done on pinyon jays, during a bumper crop year, it was estimated that one flock of 250 jays buried about 4.5 million seeds from September through January. In Arizona, a Clark’s Nutcracker, a close relative of the pinyon jay, was seen to carry 95 pinyon pine seeds in its cheek pouch for 14 miles. Approximately a ton, or four million seeds, can be cached by 150 nutcrackers!

Just as the jays and nutcrackers plant pinyon pine seeds abundantly, even carrying them to far away places, we are to be planting the seeds of truth. “You are to sow the seeds of truth in every place. Wherever you can gain access, hold forth the word of God. Sow beside all waters. You may not at once see the result of your labors, but be not discouraged. Speak the words that Christ gives you. Work in His lines. Go forth everywhere as He did during His ministry on the earth.” Testimonies, vol. 7, 36.

David Arbour writes from his home in DeQueen, Arkansas. He may be contacted by e-mail at: