We first met this bird on our tour of the Colorado Rockies, and its curiosity regarding our tour group caught our attention immediately. John Fraley of Montana Outdoors has written that a Clark’s nutcracker will plant an entire forest in its lifetime. He specifically names the high-elevation whitebark pine stands of Montana and the entire Rocky Mountain West as forests which would not exist were it not for this cone-cracking, seed-caching bird.
Whitebark pine cones don’t open naturally, as do most other pine cones. Rather, the cones are ripped apart by Clark’s nutcrackers, which feed on some of the fresh seeds and then cache the rest to eat later. Named for William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, this nutcracker was first observed by the Corps of Discovery in 1805.
The bill of the Clark’s nutcracker is like a multi-tool: chisel, tweezers, storage compartment, hoe, and planter. The nutcracker first hammers into cones and plucks out the seeds which it stores in a pouch positioned beneath the bird’s tongue. Once it has pocketed roughly 80 seeds, the nutcracker looks for a cache site. There, it makes several sideward swipes with its bill to create a trench for burying the seeds, which it coughs up one at a time. The bird plants three to five seeds at each location, then carefully covers them with soil, and when the seeds germinate the new seedlings emerge.
Click on the image for a slide show of images.