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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Clark's Nutcracker

Nucifraga columbiana ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: CORVIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Clark

High in the mountains of the West, gray-and-black Clark’s Nutcrackers swoop among wizened pine trees, flashing white in the tail and wing. They use their dagger-like bills to rip into pine cones and pull out large seeds, which they stash in a pouch under their tongue and then carry away to bury for the winter. Each birds buries tens of thousands of seeds each summer and remembers the locations of most of them. Seeds they don’t retrieve play a crucial role in growing new pine forests.

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Keys to identification Help

Crows and Jays
Crows and Jays
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Clark’s Nutcrackers are the size of a jay but the shape of a crow, with short tails and rounded, crestless heads. The bill is long, straight, and sharp-tipped.

  • Color Pattern

    Clark’s Nutcrackers are pale gray birds with black wings. In flight, the wings show large white patches along the trailing edges (secondaries). The tail is black in the center with broad white along either side. Nutcrackers have black bills, legs, and feet.

  • Behavior

    Nutcrackers travel in flocks and use their spike-like bills to pick seeds out of pine cones. They eat some of the seeds and bury thousands of others for the winter. Nutcrackers fly on broad, floppy wings and make rolling, gravelly calls audible from far away.

  • Habitat

    Clark’s Nutcrackers are birds of the mountains. They are closely associated with pines that produce large seeds, such as whitebark pine and limber pine, but are also found in other montane evergreen forests from about 3,000 to more than 11,000 feet in the West.

Range Map Help

Clark
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Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Gray Jay

    Adult
    • Similar to adult and juvenile Clark's Nutcracker
    • Short, stubby bill
    • Black cap
    • Plain gray wings with no black or white markings
    • © Jack Doyle/GBBC, Otis, Oregon, September 2008

Similar Species

Clark’s Nutcrackers share their high-elevation conifer forests with Gray Jays. Although they are similarly colored overall, Gray Jays have shorter bills, longer tails, and larger heads than Clark’s Nutcrackers, and they don’t have the Clark’s Nutcracker’s distinctive black-and-white patterning in the wings and tail.

Backyard Tips

Though they mostly eat fresh and stored pine seeds, Clark’s Nutcrackers do sometimes visit feeders at homes in the mountains. They tend to eat larger seeds, such as peanuts, and have been reported eating suet as well.

Find This Bird

Clark’s Nutcrackers are conspicuous birds in open subalpine forests near treeline in the West, where they fly with woodpecker-like swoops, perch on vertical pine branches, and jab at cones with their bills. They’re also wide-ranging and move through middle-elevation conifer forests, where they tend to stay near the canopy. A great way to find them is to listen for their long, grating calls, given frequently. If you see one pass by overhead, keep your eyes out because they typically travel in small groups. You may also see Clark’s Nutcrackers in campgrounds, picnic areas, trailheads, and high-elevation scenic pullouts in national parks and forests.

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