Clarks Nutcracker

The Flying Tree Planter

Clarks Nutcracker
Throughout the Okanogan and Columbia Highlands our mountain slopes are an intermix of conifer forest with the ponderosa pine as one of the dominant species. Looking close within these sloping pine woodlands the flashing white of wing and tail may guide us to an observation of the Clark’s Nutcracker.
This avian (Nucifraga Columbiana) is of the crow and jay family (Corvidae) but was mistaken by Captain William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery, as a woodpecker. A specimen, collected in Idaho, was brought back with the corps and later described by naturalist Alexander Wilson who named it after the Captain.

 The Clark’s Nutcracker can often be seen in winter when these active foragers fly from cache to cache uncovering the large pine seeds they placed there months ago.  While the year round staple food of a Clark’s Nutcracker is pine seeds, either fresh or stored, like many Passeriformes these birds have a variable diet and eat insects, spiders, other birds, ground squirrels, chipmunks, voles, toads, and carrion. I’m certain that many of us have observed the nutcracker working our suet feeders. In the summer and autumn seasons nutcrackers employ their knife-like bills to rip open pine cones and dig out the seeds. These birds have a unique pouch under their tongues to convey the seeds, which they carry off and bury for the winter. It is not unusual for these birds to stash tens of thousands of seeds. What’s remarkable is scientific study of the Clark’s Nutcracker shows the bird remembers the location of most of it’s hoards.  An added bonus from this creature’s hard work is seeds not retrieved are a fundamental component in the growing of new pine forests. A classic example of an interdependent relationship – Nutcracker feeds off the fruits of the pine and transports seeds to expansive locations, new pines grow to produce more cones. “Not only do the lives of Clark’s Nutcrackers revolve around their pine seed diet,” states the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “but the pines themselves have been shaped by their relationship with the nutcrackers. Whitebark pines, limber pines, Colorado pinyon pines, single-leaf pinyon pines, and southwestern white pines depend on nutcrackers to disperse their seeds. Over time this interaction has changed their seeds, their cones, and even the trees’ overall shape in comparison with other pine species whose seeds are dispersed by the wind. The Clark’s Nutcracker tests a seed for soundness by moving it up and down in its bill while quickly opening and closing its bill, in a motion known as “bill clicking.” It also chooses good seeds by color: when foraging on Colorado pinyon pines, it refuses all but dark brown seeds.”

Captain Clark’s mistake regarding his namesake nutcracker is easily understandable as this bird soars thru the subalpine forest canopy with woodpecker-like swoops, perching on  branches, and jabbing at cones with their bills.

To observe the Clark’s Nuthatch, especially in the warmer seasons,  look to the conifers in our nearby mountains, near the treeline. Clark’s Nutcrackers are sociable birds commonly traveling in small flocks, calling back and forth with far-carrying, rolling calls. These birds generally breed in the higher elevations, foraging in the upper slopes in the summer, dropping to lower woodlands in the fall and winter. In what might be said to be a contradiction of behavior the nuthatch generally lives in habitats far from human contact but when we find them in campgrounds, parking lots and around our backyard feeders they exhibit little wariness toward humans.

When locating and building the nest, both males and females play an active role. These birds choose forks in outer branches of conifer trees, built on the side of the tree that is prevalently downwind of the normal weather pattern for protection. During the actual weaving of the nest the male will perch as lookout while the female forms the nest from mutually gathered raw materials. Dried grass, fine strips of bark, moss, and sometimes animal hair, form the nest center with a layer of mineral soil on the floor. Both adults of this mated pair are brooders, taking turns with the eggs while the other gather’s seeds from its cache. The nestlings are fed seeds from storage as well.

According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey populations of Clark's Nutcrackers were generally stable from 1966 to 2010. There is some concern locally of declines possibly  due to the pine beetle epidemic. Drought years like our recent summers past also influence forest health and may impact the interdependent relationship between bird and tree. Unfortunately the massive landscape wildfires of 2015 and 2016 in our region has negatively impacted many species of birds and mammals. The oldest Clark’s Nutcracker on record was at least 17 years, 5 months old.

So grab the field glasses, head out into the forest and watch for that “flashing white of wing and tail” it may very well be a Clark’s Nutcracker, or then again, it could be just another woodpecker


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