• Bryce Canyon Amphitheater

    Bryce Canyon

    National Park Utah

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  • Back Country Campsite Closed

    Due to bear activity at Bryce Canyon's back-country, the following campsite has been closed until further notice: Sheep Creek

Clark's Nutcracker

Common Name (preferred): Clark's Nutcracker
Scientific Name: Nucifraga columbiana
Size (length) English & Metric: 12" (31 cm)
Habitat: Pine Forests
Diet: Mainly pine nuts but also insects & berries
Predators: Hawks and Falcons

 
Clark's Nutcracker on a post

Clark's Nutcracker

NPS

General Biology:
The Clark's Nutcracker is a member of the crow and jay family. This species ranges throughout the Pacific Northwest south and eastward along the Rocky Mountains, but is especially common in the Great Basin. The Clark's Nutcracker was first known to science when encountered by William Clark (whose name it bears) on the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

Being mainly gray and black, it is sometimes mistaken for the Gray Jay, perisoreus canadensis. However, the Gray Jay lacks the white wingbars and outer tail feathers that make good field marks, especially when the Clark's Nutcracker is in flight. Another distinction between these two birds is that the Clark's Nutcracker has a longer bill that is more down-turned on the end. It is, in fact, this specialized bill that makes the Clark's Nutcracker's famous lifestyle possible.

 
Clark's Nutcracker in a Juniper

Clark's Nutcracker in a juniper tree

NPS

Behavior:
Clark's Nutcrackers are part of a crucial symbiotic relationship with pine nut- producing species of pine trees including Pinyon, Limber, and Whitebark pines. The trees offer pine nuts as high-energy food to the birds and the birds cache the nuts in the ground. Any nuts that aren't eaten have a good chance of sprouting new pines. Without the trees, the birds would starve, and without the birds, the trees could no longer reproduce.

This sophisticated evolutionary relationship has its own built-in safeguards. First of all, the cones are so thick and tough that rodents seldom attempt to chew into them, but Nutcrackers with their crowbar-like bills can easily pry the nuts from the ripe cones. Even though a single Nutcracker will cache between 20,000 and 30,000 nuts each year, unlike squirrels they don't put all of their "eggs in one basket." Instead of a few large caches, Nutcrackers make up to 1,000 little ones. Some caches may contain as few as 4-5 nuts while others may contain 30-50. It is speculated that the reason few caches ever contain more than 50, is because bears can smell out the location of a large cache. Lots of smaller caches not only make it harder for the bird to lose its supply to theft, it also benefits the trees because it increases the chances that nuts will be placed in a good growing location.

The astounding thing is that even though the birds' brains are smaller than the nuts they cache, they remember with precision where up to 75% of their caches were placed. Other researchers theorize that their memory and mental mapping ability is much higher and that the other 25% is intentionally not used. Like good boy scouts, they are going the extra mile to be prepared. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the 30,000 nuts they cache represent about 25% more food than a single bird needs to survive the average winter. Caching an extra 25% might not be compensating for memory loss, but instead, actually a "planning for worst-case scenario" adaptation-- just in case the next winter is 25% longer and colder than the average.

Little is known about Clark's Nutcrackers' reproductive behavior as they are very secretive during the mating and nesting season which occurs in late winter--March or April--depending on elevation and latitude.

 
Hoodoo with location of pines planted by a Clark's Nutcracker, initially a winter cache location

Pines Planted by Clark's Nutcrackers

NPS

Conservation:
Clark's Nutcrackers in the Great Basin are lucky in that their preferred habitat, Pinyon Pine forest, is expanding as a result of fire suppression. However, in the Northern Rockies, their long-term survival is uncertain. The exotic tree disease, White Pine Blister Rust, has decimated large numbers of Whitebark Pines. This disease is especially hard on saplings and without good regeneration, foresters fear that this species of pine, which is key for the survival of not only Nutcrackers but also Grizzly Bears, might go extinct.

Pinyon Jays, gymnorhinus cyanocephalus, also play a role in the distribution of Clark's Nutcrackers. Because this electric blue bird travels in large family groups, they are often able to drive off the more solitary Clark's Nutcrackers when it comes to competing for Pinyon Pine nuts. Where Pinyon Jays are common, they dominate the lower Pinyon and Juniper forest habitat, which forces Nutcrackers to the higher elevations where they must forage on the less nutritious Limber Pine nuts.

 
image depicting the Clark's Nutcracker habitat

Range of the Clark's Nutcracker

NPS

When and where to see at Bryce:
The Clark's Nutcracker is a year-round resident in most places where it is found. It wouldn't make much sense to spend all summer and fall caching nuts and then fly away for the winter. At Bryce Canyon, they are most commonly encountered in late summer and fall because that's when they are frantically caching nuts from sun-up to sun-down. The best places to see one are where Limber Pines grow. Because Limber Pines do not compete well with other species of pines, they are often relegated to the most barren and windy slopes with the poorest soil. Places like this include Sunrise Point, Inspiration Point, and Yovimpa Point.

Further Reading:
Dunn, John L. 1999. The National Geographic Field Guide to Birds: 3rd Edition. National Geographic, Washington D.C.

Erlich, Paul R. et al. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American Birds, Simon and Schuster/Fireside Books, New York

Ryser, Fred A. 1985. Birds of the Great Basin: A Natural History. University of Nevada Press

Sibley, David Allen. 2001. The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. Knopf Publishing

Did You Know?

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The Bryce Canyon Paintbrush was discovered June 24, 1965 at Inspiration Point in Bryce Canyon National Park. This rare wildflower is only found in southwestern Utah. More...