I’ll soon be reacquainting myself with a few old feathered friends. For going on 14 October moons I’ll be wandering around in the Colorado Rocky Mountains once again in search of elk and mule deer, but along the way — and truly, most of the time — I’ll be seeking out my avian acquaintances.
At the top of the list is a somewhat noisy and cantankerous corvid, the Clark’s nutcracker. Those of you familiar with my wildlife weeklies have no doubt recollection of past mentions of this unique bird of the American West.
A mid-size passerine about the size of a close relative, the blue jay, but less sleek, is a constant companion of mine wherever I may be — in the lower southern aspect elevations where the pinyon pine and ball cacti grow, to the north facing slopes of the High Country where massive Douglas firs tower over all else, and to the deep, long aspen draws and drainages to the sprawling sage-covered treeless ridges and side-slopes, Clark’s nutcrackers will be there, too.
I’ve marveled at how evolution and time shaped this specialized creature. Nutcrackers’ well-known and studied trait is its penchant for caching foodstuffs, namely pine seeds, but many other kinds of seeds as well. Possessing a sub-lingual pouch beneath its tongue, Clark’s nutcrackers use these pouches to store as many as 90 or more seeds inside their pouches.
Once full, the nutcracker hides the seeds one-by-one all over the place, mostly in spots on the ground where the seeds are partially buried for later consumption. What’s even more fascinating about this behavior, is that the bird remembers where its hidden caches are located despite the fact that an individual nutcracker may have hundreds of caches filled with thousands of seeds.
Granted, as developed as Clark’s nutcrackers’ spatial memory is, they don’t remember or get around to consuming seeds from every cache. And hence, the benefit of such memory lapses is facilitated forest regeneration. Their indiscriminate seed planting often results in seed germination and growth. Clark’s nutcrackers are indeed veritable Johnny Appleseeds of the forest.
Another mountain friend of mine is the dusky grouse, more often called the blue grouse. A gallinaceous bird related to the wild turkey and ruffed grouse, the dusky grouse is the second largest grouse in North America, second only to the sage grouse. Unlike our own ruffed grouse, which is a skittish bird that makes haste at our approach, dusky grouse will calmly walk away a short distance ahead of you, sometimes flushing if you almost step on them, but even then will only flush a few yards, generally to the nearest tree limb to then sit and look at you.
A beautiful grouse, dusky grouse are locally abundant and will utilize a variety of habitats for both shelter and food. I have encountered these big grouse in every location that I’ve observed Clark’s nutcrackers in, with the exception of the wide open spaces dominated by sagebrush.
Extremely strong flyers similar to sharp-tailed grouse of Minnesota and the Great Plains, I’ve delighted in watching dusky grouse, normally only one or two at a time, leave their roosts in the early morning light and fly clear across mile-wide canyons to get to who knows where.
Yet another feathered favorite, and related to Clark’s nutcrackers, is the Steller’s jay. Like our blue jay, Steller’s jays are noisy, alarmist corvids. Interestingly, as abundant as Steller’s jays are in the Rockies, I can’t recall ever seeing more than a half-dozen together at a time. Especially elegant looking, these half-charcoal black and half blue-colored crested jays are gorgeous.
Characteristic of the blue jay, Steller’s jays relish in good old-fashioned mobbing behaviors. One October morning a few years ago, I watched a pair of Steller’s jays relentlessly chase and scream after a hapless pine marten from the area where the mammal was hunting in.
For sure, old friends are good to touch base with now and then. I’d like to think that these special species of birds see me as nothing more than a harmless orange-clad curiosity. I know I appreciate their company and antics, as you undoubtedly would, too, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.