The nutcracker is an abundant natural forester due to its habit of concealing thousands of pine seeds every year. While basking under a pine tree in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Diana Tomback had a rendezvous with her first Clark’s Nutcracker. She observed this bird diligently extracting individual pine seeds by peeling off scales from a pinecone using its bill. Fascinated by this scene, Tomback sought information from a park ranger who identified the bird as a “pine crow” and the tree as a whitebark pine.
Upon her return to graduate school, she became captivated by a particular bird and its interactions with the whitebark pine. Determined to learn more, she delved into research only to discover that this bird, also known as the “pine crow,” was actually a Clark’s Nutcracker. Despite extensive studies on the Eurasian Nutcracker in Europe, there was very little information available on its North American counterpart.
As she reflected upon her experience, she exclaimed, “Wow, this bird and my interaction with it are amazing!” This realization sparked Tomback’s dedication to studying the Clark’s Nutcracker. For several decades now, Tomback, currently an ecologist at the University of Colorado, Denver, has authored numerous articles about these birds. Throughout her research, she has uncovered that they possess even more extraordinary qualities than she initially thought. Among them is their ability to stockpile seeds, which ultimately aids in the growth of fresh pine forests. These avian foresters are truly a wonder to behold.
The Clark’s Nutcrackers are highly skilled in extracting seeds from pinecones. These cones contain numerous seeds that are inaccessible to most animals during most parts of the year. However, the nutcrackers have a unique advantage as they do not have to wait till autumn for the cones to open up. They use their sharp bills to pierce through the scales of unripe cones in July and extract the seeds with ease.
The task of Clark’s Nutcrackers is no cakewalk. These birds have to tirelessly strip apart pinecones, which often results in their grey feathers being stained with reddish-purple resin. However, the reward is worth the laborious process as pine seeds are a highly nutritious food source that is abundant in fats, proteins, and carbs. In fact, these seeds are so filling that only a few can satisfy a nutcracker’s hunger. It’s fascinating to observe the bird’s habits once it has eaten enough seeds.
Clark’s Nutcrackers have a unique way of preparing for winter by using their surroundings as their own personal pantry. Unlike other birds that stock up on food by eating more, these slim gray corvids store the pine seeds they have eaten in a pouch below their tongue and bury clusters of four or five seeds in the soil. During the peak season, they can store up to 500 seeds per hour. By the end of fall, each nutcracker has hidden tens of thousands of seeds that they rely on throughout winter. It is fascinating how even though they hide the seeds, they can find them later. They usually hide the seeds near tree trunks, so landmarks help them remember the precise location of the caches. The birds remember up to 10,000 caching locations at a given time, but their memory fades over time. After nine or ten months, many uneaten seeds remain forgotten under the forest floor.
Clark’s Nutcrackers are important foresters as they bury seeds at the perfect depth for germination, leading to the growth of new trees. These birds play an essential role in planting new generations of pine trees, even helping them expand their territory. However, their relationship with whitebark pines is now in danger due to the spread of a deadly fungus and mountain pine beetles. As a result, researchers are studying how to attract Clark’s Nutcrackers to aid in forest restoration, similar to how German foresters have used Eurasian Jays to replant oak trees for decades. By caching enough whitebark pine seeds, these birds could help sustain the tree and save the West’s pine forests.