Common Name (preferred): Clark's Nutcracker
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.
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.
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.
When and where to see at Bryce:
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