Wild Profile: Meet the Clark’s nutcracker

Published: March 3, 2020

Clark's nutcracker By Eivor Kuchta/Shutterstock

The Clark’s nutcracker is a pretty special bird. Named after William Clark (of Lewis and Clark), it’s one of only two nutcracker species in the world. When Clark first spotted one in 1805, he thought it was a woodpecker; he saw it pounding its dagger-like beak against pine cones. Turns out, the bird was after seeds, not insects.

In Canada, Clark’s nutcrackers are a Western species, found only in Alberta and B.C.

They eat pine seeds almost exclusively. Like the Canada jay, they cache food before winter. They collect the seeds in the late summer and fall, and stick them—up to 150 at a time—in a pouch under the tongue until they find a suitable spot to bury them. They might hide tens of thousands of seeds before winter hits, sometimes in a trench that they’ve dug with their bills.

These birds depend on pine trees to survive, but the trees also depend on the birds. Research suggests that various Western pine species (whitebark pine, limber pine, Colorado pinyon pine, single-leaf pinyon pine, and southwestern white pine) all use nutcrackers to disperse their seeds. The symbiotic relationship is so important that the trees have evolved to produce “wingless” seeds. Since the birds carry the seeds, they don’t need a structure that allows them to float on—and be dispersed by—the wind.

Clark’s nutcrackers are winter nesters. (Both males and females gather building materials, and unlike most crows, the males help with incubating the eggs.) The timing makes sense: nestlings are born early and still profit from whatever seeds are leftover from last year’s food-caching spree. Then, when it’s time to start caching again, the babies are old enough to forage solo.

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