Clark's Nutcrackers

By Kayla Frost | Photo by Bruce D. Taubert

Clark’s nutcrackers are hoarders. With their dagger-like bills, these birds jab into pine cones and harvest their seeds, storing up to 150 of them in pouches under their tongues. They bury the high-calorie seeds, tens of thousands of them, in small caches for the winter. Impressively, Clark’s nutcrackers can remember for more than nine months where they hid most of the seeds. Any seeds not devoured can grow into new trees. Moreover, certain pine trees, such as whitebark pines, have beneficially co-evolved with these birds.

Though seeds make up the bulk of their diet, Clark’s nutcrackers opportunistically eat bugs, small vertebrates and even other birds. They live in coniferous forests in southwestern Canada and throughout the western United States, including Arizona, usually from 3,000 to 11,000 feet in elevation. Adult nutcrackers are 11 to 13 inches in length — about the size of jays, although they’re shaped like crows. Clark’s nutcrackers are mostly light gray, with black eyes, bills and feet. Their wings are also black, with white tips, and resemble reverse piano keys when the birds are in flight.

Despite frigid weather, Clark’s nutcrackers start breeding in January and February. The seed caches from which they feed their young allow them to breed early. Unlike most other members of the crow family, male nutcrackers incubate the eggs, even developing brood patches — areas of featherless skin on their chests — to keep the eggs warm. Clark’s nutcrackers typically lay two to six speckled green eggs at a time.

Clark’s nutcrackers are Clark’s nutcrackers because their first notable sighting was in 1805 by Captain William Clark. He and fellow adventurer Meriwether Lewis caught a nutcracker, one of three new bird species they collected during their Corps of Discovery expedition.