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Naturalist’s Notebook: Clark’s Nutcracker

by John Schmitt
Clark’s Nutcracker and a chipmunk compete for seeds

14 August 2009, McGill Campground, Mount Pinos, Ventura County, California

My experience with Clark’s Nutcrackers had been confined almost entirely to merely hearing their dry, grating calls, or seeing them buoyantly winging past above tall mountain forests. So when I discovered a small flock of the birds foraging in the campground this morning, I intently followed and observed them for the better part of an hour.

Most of their foraging activity was conducted high in the Jeffrey pines, where I observed them forcefully hacking and prying open the scales of the abundant cones, then extracting and storing the nuts in their sublingual pouch. When the pouch bulged with nuts, they would fly away—no doubt to find a safe place to stash their booty.

Ultimately, I focused my attention on a lone and confiding nutcracker, harvesting loose nuts beneath a monarch of a Jeffrey pine, where the ground was thickly studded with fallen cones. The nutcracker divided its efforts between collecting nuts and chasing away a Merriam’s chipmunk that dared to harvest nuts from the same rich field.

The nutcracker’s attempts to evict the “nut rustler” were very swift, dodging affairs; the nutcracker would furiously fly low and fast right behind the fleeing chipmunk, impressively following its every dodge and jink. And this was no small achievement, for the chipmunk’s bounding course resembled that of a ricocheting pinball, in both speed and direction changes.

The chase ended temporarily when the chipmunk ducked into a nearbyCeanothus thicket. But after a short interval, the chipmunk emerged to once again trespass into the contested field, sparking another chase.

Finally, with its pouch heavy with pine nuts—and after three spirited chipmunk chases—the nutcracker flew away, leaving the harvest field to the busy chipmunk.

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