- 10.6–11.8 in
- 3.7–5.7 oz
- Smaller than an American Crow; about the size of a Steller’s Jay but more compact.
- Cassenoix d'Amérique (French)
- Cascanueces Americano (Spanish)
- The Clark's Nutcracker has a special pouch under its tongue that it uses to carry seeds long distances. The nutcracker harvests seeds from pine trees and takes them away to hide them for later use.
- The Clark's Nutcracker hides thousands and thousands of seeds each year. Laboratory studies have shown that the bird has a tremendous memory and can remember where to find most of the seeds it hides.
- The Clark's Nutcracker feeds its nestlings pine seeds from its many winter stores (caches). Because it feeds the young on stored seeds, the nutcracker can breed as early as January or February, despite the harsh winter weather in its mountain home.
- The Clark's Nutcracker is one of very few members of the crow family where the male incubates the eggs. In jays and crows, taking care of the eggs is for the female only. But the male nutcracker actually develops a brood patch on its chest just like the female, and takes his turn keeping the eggs warm while the female goes off to get seeds out of her caches.
- Not only do the lives of Clark’s Nutcrackers revolve around their pine seed diet, but the pines themselves have been shaped by their relationship with the nutcrackers. Whitebark pines, limber pines, Colorado pinyon pines, single-leaf pinyon pines, and southwestern white pines depend on nutcrackers to disperse their seeds. Over time this interaction has changed their seeds, their cones, and even the trees’ overall shape in comparison with other pine species whose seeds are dispersed by the wind.
- The Clark’s Nutcracker tests a seed for soundness by moving it up and down in its bill while quickly opening and closing its bill, in a motion known as “bill clicking.” It also chooses good seeds by color: when foraging on Colorado pinyon pines, it refuses all but dark brown seeds.
- Ounce for ounce, the whitebark pine seeds that many Clark’s Nutcrackers depend on have more calories than chocolate.
- Clark’s Nutcracker is in the crow and jay family—but the first time Captain William Clark saw one, in August of 1805, he thought it was a woodpecker. He and Meriwether Lewis collected a specimen in Idaho on their return journey a year later. Clark’s Nutcracker was one of three new bird species brought back from their expedition, all of which were described by the naturalist Alexander Wilson.
- The oldest recorded Clark’s Nutcracker was at least 17 years, 5 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Oregon in 1969. It had been banded in the same state in 1952.
Clark’s Nutcrackers live in open coniferous forests in the western United States and southwestern Canada, at anywhere from 3,000 to 12,000 feet. Starting in early June, they become more abundant at higher elevations, in stands of shrubby whitebark or limber pine (sometimes mixed with fir, spruce, or other pines) with nearby creeks, small lakes, and moist meadows. In the fall, nutcrackers move down to lower elevations into forests of Jeffrey pine, pinyon-juniper, limber pine, southwestern white pine, bristlecone pine, ponderosa pine, or Douglas-fir, depending on which forests have the most available seeds.
All year round, the staple food of a Clark Nutcracker’s diet is pine seeds, either fresh or stored. The nutcracker uses its long, sharp, sturdy bill to crack open closed, unripe pine cones and remove seeds from the cone scales. It shells seeds by cracking them in its bill or by holding them in its feet and hammering them. Between September and December it stores seeds to eat later, placing 30–150 seeds in the pouch under its tongue and carrying them to a spot nearby or up to 15 miles away. It digs a trench in the soil with its bill and puts a cluster of seeds inside before covering them up again, or it pushes individual seeds into gravelly soil, pumice, or crevices in wood. During the winter and spring, it relocates caches by remembering where they lie in relation to nearby objects like rocks, logs, and trees. Nutcrackers have such good memories that they can relocate seeds more than nine months after caching them, though their accuracy declines after about six months. They don’t recover all the seeds they bury, and it’s estimated that for some high-elevation pines, such as whitebark pine, virtually all the trees you can see on the landscape come from seeds planted by a nutcracker. Nutcrackers use cached seeds to feed both themselves and their young. Clark’s Nutcrackers also opportunistically eat insects and spiders, and small vertebrates such as other birds, ground squirrels, chipmunks, voles, toads, and carrion.
- Clutch Size
- 2–6 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1 broods
- Egg Length
- 1.1–1.5 in
- Egg Width
- 0.9–1 in
- Incubation Period
- 18 days
- Nestling Period
- 20 days
- Egg Description
- Pale greenish flecked with brown, olive, or gray.
- Condition at Hatching
- Helpless, with sparse white down and closed eyes. The insides of the bill are salmon red.
Males and females both gather nest material and build the nest in 5–8 days. They bring twigs of Douglas-fir, juniper, or incense cedar to the nest at a rate of one twig every 3–4 minutes, sometimes collecting material from 500 yards or more from the nest. While the male stands lookout on a perch, the female weaves twigs into a platform 8–13 inches across, secured to small branches on a supporting limb. She makes a cup of rotten wood pulp about 4 inches across and 3 inches deep, and lines it with dried grass, fine strips of bark, moss, or animal hair, with a layer of mineral soil on the floor.
Nests are in forks of the outer branches of conifers such as pines, larches, junipers, spruces, and firs near seed stores from the previous fall. They are built on the leeward side of trees for shelter from the wind, and they are often poorly concealed. It’s not known how males or females contribute toward choosing nest sites.
Clark’s Nutcrackers are gregarious birds that typically travel in small flocks, calling back and forth with far-carrying, rolling calls. When flying from tree to tree they often undulate like a woodpecker, alternately flapping and holding their wings close to their sides. They spend much of their time in summer gathering pine seeds and burying them in caches to be used later in the year. One nutcracker may fly toward another that is harvesting or digging up stored seeds and try to take over the food by pushing the bird out of the way. Clark’s Nutcrackers are monogamous and pair bonds seem to last for many years, although this hasn’t been studied closely enough to be certain. Courting birds fly together with fast dives and swoops, feed each other, and may hold twigs in their bills. Pairs hold nesting territories, which they may defend by locking bills and claws with intruders. They nest as early as January or February, possibly so the young will be independent by late summer, when it’s time to start caching seeds. In late spring, family groups with newly fledged juveniles join together into loose flocks. The nutcrackers are almost always in groups, except while depositing or retrieving seed caches. Besides other members of their own species, they also forage with other birds and mammals, most of which defer to the dominant nutcrackers. Clark’s Nutcrackers mob Red-tailed Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Swainson’s Hawks, Golden Eagles, and Great Horned Owls. They seem to play by flying wildly in high winds as well as by provoking and chasing small raptors.
Clark's Nutcracker populations appear to have experienced declines between 1966 and 2015, most notably in Washington, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 230,000, with 89% living in the U.S. and 11% in Canada. The species rates and 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. It is a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. Clark's Nutcracker is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. Local declines may be due to a pine beetle epidemic and the arrival of white pine blister rust, both of which kill the whitebark pines that many nutcrackers depend on. Limber pine and southwestern white pine face similar threats, while pinyon pine is declining as people clear land for cattle. Because Clark’s Nutcrackers live in fragile subalpine zones near the tops of mountains, they are one of the species most vulnerable to climate change: as temperatures warm, habitat zones are likely to shift upward in elevation, reducing the amount of subalpine habitat available on mountaintops.
- Tomback, D. F. 1998. Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana). In The Birds of North America, No. 331 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
- North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2016. The State of North
America’s Birds 2016. Environment and Climate Change Canada: Ottawa, Ontario.
- Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
- Sauer, J.R., J.E. Hines, J.E. Fallon, K.L. Pardieck, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr., and W.A. Link. 2016. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015, Version 01.30.2015. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2016. Longevity records of North American Birds.
Altitudinal migrant. In late spring, after their young fledge, Clark’s Nutcrackers move upslope to subalpine habitats of whitebark pine and limber pine. They migrate back downslope in the fall, or earlier if the whitebark and limber pines have poor cone crops. Occasionally, when cones are especially scarce, large numbers of nutcrackers will move longer distances within or outside of their normal range. They have shown up as far away as Pennsylvania and central Ontario.
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 out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.
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.
You Might Also Like
Fire, Drought, Beetles, and Birds, Birdscope, Winter 2004.
A Tough Nut to Crack, BirdScope, Winter 2012.
How Clark’s Nutcrackers Find Buried Seeds Under A Blanket Of Snow, Living Bird, Autumn 2013.
eBird Occurrence Maps, Clark’s Nutcracker
Soul Mates: Nutcrackers, Whitebark Pine, and a Bond That Holds an Ecosystem Together, Living Bird, Autumn 2015.
Jays And Crows Act As Ecosystem Engineers, All About Birds, February 4, 2016.
Where Is That Bird Going With That Seed? It’s Caching Food For Later, All About Birds, April 13, 2016.
Clark’s Nutcrackers and the Trees They Depend On [video]