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South Dakota State University does research into bird conservation

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An excess of light blue bird colonies once called the western parts of the U.S. their home. Now a pinyon jay sighting in the Black Hills, among other areas, is a rarity. According to the U.S. department of agriculture the species has seen over an 80 percent depletion in population within the last 50 years.

For SDSU Graduate Student Emily Macklin and Professor Amanda Cheeseman PhD. these birds are the topic of a three-year research project. They have partnered with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Federal Bureau of Land Management with the goal of discovering the amount of pinyon jays in southern Colorado.

Cheeseman explained that Macklin is toward the end of her first round of field data collection. She has spent months in southern Colorado studying the movement and presence of pinyon jays as well as their relationship to the Pinyon-Juniper tree.

Pinyon-Juniper trees have historically engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship with pinyon jays. The blue birds are the only known animal that eats the seeds of the Pinyon-Juniper. The ones they do not consume get spread around the landscape. This relationship has made the pinyon jay most popular in areas where there are plenty of Pinyon-Juniper pines. However, those same trees are specifically good at fueling fires meaning some are removed to lessen the chance of a wildfire.

Macklin and Cheeseman’s research is also focusing on discovering how the pinyon jay responds to other species of trees. They are trying to find out all the information they can so that in the case of the current federal conversation results in the bird species receiving endangered animal status, Colorado Parks and Wildlife will be ready to implement conservation protocols.

The research team submitted a proposal to the Bureau of Land Management who now funds the majority of the project however Macklin and Cheeseman are also receiving non-profit funding from the Colorado Birding Challenge. The latter selected the SDSU project as the winner of funds they annually provide to a bird conservation program.

For more information on the SDSU research project visit SDSU researchers investigating conservation solutions for pinyon jays | South Dakota State University (

Zadya Abbott (she/her/hers) is a senior at the University of South Dakota studying Media and Journalism with a minor in Women and Gender Sexuality Studies. She is native to the southeastern corner of South Dakota. Zadya regards the journalism profession as one of noble service meant to objectively provide the public with information of interest.