This little bird has planted more trees than Johnny Appleseed
Related to jays and crows, the Clark's nutcracker is named after the explorer William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, who first recorded observing the interesting mountain bird in the year of 1805.
I've since learned much about the species. Like their cousin the gray jay, Clark's nutcrackers are notorious caching birds. They have extraordinary spatial memories that enable them to relocate in the wintertime most of the pine nuts and various seeds that they stored throughout the autumn months, even underneath several feet of snow. Up to 33,000 seeds are cached each fall by foraging Clark's nutcrackers.
The cones of several different pine trees, including pinyons, are pried and hammered open by the powerful and sharp bills of Clark's nutcrackers. This amazing activity also explained what the unusual hammer-like sound was that I heard one afternoon on another of my breaks. The sound was not like the usual woodpecker, though nearly as loud as from a pileated woodpecker.
Over the years in northwest Colorado, taking in the sights, sounds and scents of my mountain breaks while hunting deer and elk, I've watched various Clark's nutcrackers position a ripe pinecone between their feet and strike hard its outer surface so as to break apart the near impenetrable protective exterior. The sound reminded me of someone clucking their tongue against their palate, but much louder.
Another unique feature of the Clark's nutcracker is its lingual pouch (a pouch behind its tongue). This pouch enables the bird to store many seeds, up to 90 depending on seed size, which it collects while foraging.
When their pouch becomes full, the bird transports its seeds to different hiding places — typically beneath the soil of exposed slopes. Clark's nutcrackers can create as many as 2,500 caches of five to 10 seeds inside each cache.
As good a memory as the Clark's nutcracker has, it is believed that 25 percent of the cached seeds are never recovered. Whether it's a result of memory loss or simply the storage of 25 percent more than what any individual bird actually needs to survive any given winter, is unclear.
To the forest, however, leftover pine seeds are often a boon. If conditions are suitable, many of the cached seeds that are not found and consumed will germinate and grow into trees. Clark's nutcrackers, it turns out, serve an important ecological role, if not a symbiotic relationship, with the pine trees that they depend on for survival.
One afternoon in the Rocky Mountains of northwest Colorado, while taking a lunch break on the mountain side-slope where I was hunting, I sat against a tree eating a sandwich and soaking up the October sunshine, when a nutcracker squawked loudly from a nearby perch. Looking up into the leafless canopy of the mature aspens, I spotted the bird just as it lifted off a limb and flew to the ground about 30 yards from where I sat.
Watching the nutcracker through my binoculars, I was spellbound as I observed what it was doing. Noting that that the bird had an enlarged throat, it soon became clear that the nutcracker began emptying its lingual pouch of pine nuts, or of some other type of foodstuffs as, one by one, the nutcracker buried its prizes at various locations.
With each item extracted, the bird poked the ground with its beak and released its food in the earth. After a short time had passed and the bird finished caching, it abruptly flew away and was not seen again.
Indeed, the Clark's nutcracker — noisy, attractive, and alluring — is just one species of wild Western birds that's as appealing as they come, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.