Following our first snowfall of the season Leonard and I were at Ash Creek (Lassen County CA). We were pleasantly surprised to see two Clark’s nutcrackers (Nucifraga columbiana) collecting ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) seeds. In over twenty years, this is the first time I can remember seeing Clark’s nutcrackers at Ash Creek. The birds were high in the pines across the creek, truthfully too far away to photograph. I seriously considered wading across the creek to get closer. However with temperatures hovering around freezing, snow on the ground and the car over a mile away, common sense prevailed – barely. So even though these are not good pictures of Clark’s nutcrackers I want to share my exciting sighting.
Clark’s nutcrackers are found throughout the mountains of western United States and southeastern Canada in forests dominated by at least one species of large-seeded pines. A bird of the mountains, Clark’s nutcrackers live from 3,000 to 12,000 feet. Nonmigratory, some will move to the lower elevations in the winter. Usually Clark’s nutcrackers avoid human habitation, but will occasionally come to picnic grounds, scenic viewpoints or campsites.
A member of the crow or jay family, a Clark’s nutcracker is easy to identify in the field. The head and body are pale gray, which contrasts with the black and white wings and tail. The black bill is long and sharp-tipped. The legs are also black.
Although Clark’s nutcrackers will occasionally eat insects, berries and other fruits, their diet consists primarily of pine seeds. With their bills, these nutcrackers rip into pine cones and pull out the seeds. After eating a few seeds, the nutcrackers will stash 30 to 150 seeds in a pouch under their tongues before flying off to cache the seeds for the winter and following spring. During the summer and fall each Clark’s nutcracker will store tens of thousands of seeds in the ground or pushed into cracks and crevices in wood, gravelly areas or rocks. The nutcracker digs a trench in the soil and covers it after depositing the seeds. Amazingly these birds remember the location of most of their caches. (Non-retrieved seeds are crucial in growing new pine forests.) These nutrition rich seeds provide nourishment throughout the winter. In the spring the nutcrackers feed the stored seeds to their offspring, permitting them to lay eggs earlier than other birds without reserves of food. Although Clark’s nutcrackers inhabit the mountains, every 10 to 20 years they will irrupt (move into) the deserts and lowlands of the west due to major pine cone failures.
Clark’s nutcrackers are social birds and can usually be found in small flocks unless they are depositing pine seeds into or retrieving seeds from their caches.
William Clark, of Clark and Meriwether fame, was the first to collect specimens of Clark’s nutcrackers. Clark thought these birds, which he found in Idaho, were a type of woodpecker. The genus name, Nucifraga, means “nut break” in Latin.
Leonard and I are going back to Ash Creek in a few days. Maybe the Clark’s nutcrackers will still be there and will be more photogenic this time.