Nutcrackers Revisited

by Pat Jaquith

Clark’s Nutcrackers are amazingly intelligent birds that have been linked to the Whitebark pine trees that are beleaguered by disease and beetles, but it appears that their resourcefulness is helping them transition to other sources of livelihood.

Clark’s Nutcracker atop a Ponderosa Pine 10.20.15

Whitebark Pine trees that have served many important roles in the ecology of high elevations are dependent on the Clark’s Nutcracker for dispersing their seeds. Their cones are nearly impervious, but the Nutcracker has the unique ability to open them with that almost woodpecker-like stout beak and harvest the seeds. They fill a pouch under their tongue (sublingual pouch) that can hold up to 100 seeds and fly as far as 32 miles away to cache the seeds. They ‘plant’ them about an inch deep, several in a hole, often near a tree, rock, or some other memorable site – or even place a cone on top – to assist their retrieval of seeds. They are said to have the best spatial memory of most any animal on earth. They cache more than they need, so the extras are the ones that sprout and grow. Bears eat the seeds when they can find them, but the seeds do not survive the trip through their digestive system.
As the Whitebark Pine have died off due to disease and insect infestation, there has been concern that Nutcrackers would also suffer. But they are becoming more frequently seen in lower elevations where they are employing their skills and adapting to finding other food resources. I sat on a hilltop near my house and watched the nutcracker pictured above as it made multiple trips between the Ponderosa pine and various spots on the ground: it was harvesting Ponderosa pine seeds and planting them where they could be found in times of need.

Clark’s Nutcracker eyeing the suet feeder 12.08.17 I wonder if the pouch for holding seeds is in that neck bulge?
The Nutcracker’s harvest of suet 12.08.17
Nutcracker always secured its position with one foot on the chain as it reached down for food

It was interesting to note that this was the first time I’d ever observed the Nutcracker at the suet feeder. It had been here for water and sunflower seeds before. Also, this time it seemed to be with a Blue Jay, one of its Corvid relatives.
Skip posted another notable nutcracker visit around his house that you may find interesting.

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