THE NUMEMON: PIŃONERO NOSTALGIA

I was disappointed. I had just finished tramping for an hour up and down a pinyon-juniper canyon looking for a Long-eared Owl.  Stupidly, I had forgotten boots and had worn low hiking shoes.  All I had to show for my sojourn were wet and cold feet.  This canyon is not in the beautiful red rock country either.  Colors were muted. Where there wasn’t snow, there was mud.  I saw plenty of tracks in the snow but neither heard nor saw any creatures.  I looked for whitewash in previously-favored trees. Nothing.

I saw my first Long-eared Owl here about 30 years ago.  I’ve returned many times for a reacquaintance.  The majority of my visits have been successful, but the percentage has been dropping—not because I’m older and less energetic but because there are fewer owls.  Long-eared Owl populations have fallen locally, and possibly world-wide.   This nomadic and furtive species is difficult to monitor.  We know their population is down locally because the habitat loss is obvious.  This area has usually harbored a pair of owls.  I’ll come back in a few weeks and try again.

Back in my car, I kept driving the remote dirt road even though I’d seen no wildlife for miles.  I really thought I’d see an owl.  I thought maybe there would be a Ferruginous or Rough-legged Hawk. Nope. Maybe some antelope!  No, nothing.  Suddenly, flashes of blue.  Lots of flashes. I stopped and lowered a window so I could listen.

According to one of my bird books the call is kwai kwai kwai. Another calls it raa-ah, raa-raa-raa, kya-raa and compares it to a species of seagull.  Maybe you should listen: https://ebird.org/species/pinjay

Some bird calls evoke a landscape. This is one of them. Aldo Leopold, in his essay, Chihuahua and Sonora, spoke of the North Woods in autumn and how everyone knew it was defined by the land, “plus a red maple, plus a ruffed grouse.” “The grouse,” he said, “represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre.  Yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”  “An ecological death, as with the grouse, is inexpressible in terms of contemporary science.”  Leopold further notes that “a philosopher has called this imponderable essence the numenon of material things.”  He then lists other numenons besides the grouse, one being the “piňonero of the juniper foothills.” 

 Piňoneros are what I was watching and listening to.  Known to most as Pinyon Jays, I had read Leopold’s words in the 1970s when I initially encountered them in Western Colorado.  They were abundant.  I enjoyed the idea of them as the numenon, but they’ve slipped away.  Yes, there are those with feeders in the right locations that have their seed wiped out in no time by a big flock.  Indeed, I was looking at 20-30 birds myself.  But I couldn’t easily recall when I’d last had this experience. 

Have you seen the movie or read the book The Big Year? I received a phone call one evening a few years ago. The voice identified itself with the name of one of the protagonists. He said he was doing a “big  year,” that is, trying to see as many birds as possible in one year.  He needed help finding Pinyon Jays.  I was excited. I would meet a birding hero.  Except, I didn’t.  The gentleman was doing a big year. He was a nice guy. We got along well. But, he wasn’t one of the protagonists from the movie. He just happened to have the same name.  Nonetheless, I took him to a number of locations where I’d remembered finding Pinyon Jays over the years. We struck out.  Then I thought of some local feeders where I’d seen Pinyon Jays.  No jays.  I wasn’t able to show him any.  He was disappointed but thanked me for my effort and went on his way.

I went home and started pulling references from my shelves.  A 1992 reference specific to Colorado refers to Pinyon Jays as “”common to abundant” throughout Western Colorado.  On the other hand, the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas project reported a 15% decline between 1998 and 2016.  The on-line reference, all-about-birds, states that “Pinyon Jays are uncommon and their populations have declined by 85% between 1970 and 2014” and that the species is on track to “lose another half of their remaining population by 2036.” Loss of habitat to grazing and development is a major factor in the decline.  Leopold said, “subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.” It may already be too late to refer to Pinyon Jays as the “numenon” in our local pinyon-juniper canyons.

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