Since 1872, 322 bird species have been sighted in Yellowstone. Many of those species are seen as they migrate with the seasons. It is believed that 148 species nest in the park. Of all those species, there is none more important to the future health of Yellowstone than the Clark’s Nutcracker.
While these birds can be found in a variety of habitats, they are most often associated with sub-alpine conifer forest. You may hear Clark’s Nutcrackers before you see them. Watch for small flocks working their way from tree to tree as they search for food. It is this search for their favorite food, pine seeds, that makes this bird so important for the ecosystem.
Clark’s Nutcrackers have the ability to hold several dozen pine seeds in their throat at a time. They bury those seeds in caches and return to eat them at a later date. Even through deep snow, they seem to remember where they buried their caches.
Yellowstone is home to two different 5 needle pine species that are used by the Clark’s Nutcrackers. Limber pines are found at lower elevations in the park and whitebark pines are found at higher elevations.
The caches that are not eaten by the nutcrackers can germinate and become new stands of trees. This can help Yellowstone’s whitebark pine forest battle climate change. As average temperatures rise, the upper treeline can adjust to higher elevations.
Clark’s Nutcrackers are also important to grizzly bears. Grizzly bears love pine seeds but are not good tree climbers. Grizzlies search the treeline for pine seed caches and when they find them they can be rewarded with hundreds of seeds that are high in fat.
So when you just thought you were watching birds, you were really watching a forest engineer. Planting trees, battling climate change, and feeding bears, that’s the Clark’s Nutcracker.