Nature Notes

Vol. II February-March 1984 No. 2

CLARK'S NUTCRACKER, Nucifraga columbiana

Monday Night Football has Howard Cossel; Mt. Rainier has Clark's Nutcracker. They're a lot alike, Clark and Howard.

For example, both are associated with persons of fame. Howard was more or less discovered with Muhammed Ali, and his star rose alongside the boxer's. Ah, but Clark Snutcracker's (that's the way most people pronounce it, isn't it?) connections are even more famous. He was first described by the illustrious William Clark (near present-day Salmon City, Idaho, on August 22, 1805) during the celebrated Lewis and Clark expedition. The well-known American ornithologist Alexander Wilson named him and wrote him up -- celebrity stuff indeed, if you're a bird.

Clark's nutcracker

Indeed, Clark is way ahead of Howard as regards celebrity status. No one has named any thing after Howard as yet (the Largemouth Bass was named centuries before Cosell came along), but the Camp Bird Mine near Ouray, Colorado, bears one of his alternative names. He's also called Meat Bird because he eats meat, both fresh and carrion, moreso than do his jay and crow relatives.

Celebrity status requires that the subject be in the public eye. Most of the year, Clark's Nutcracker lives at high elevations in the western mountains, usually near treeline. But between nesting seasons, flocks of the bird range widely, invading new areas, descending the forested slopes to lower elevations. The bird can be seen some time or other in just about any place that's thickly wooded. And there's nothing reticent about either Clark or Howard. Both are bold and noisy and neither minds in the least being seen.

If you're a celebrity, it always helps to get the jump on the competition. Clark does. In February and March, when other birds are just starting to think about wending their way to nesting grounds, Clark and his wife are already hard at work producing the year's new brood. The three or four eggs, pale and usually speckled, are nurtured in a well-built nest high in the trees. By late April, when other birds are just starting, the young nutcrackers are fledged and on their own.

But February is still the dead of winter in the high country. So what do nutcrackers eat and feed their young? The bird is adept at cracking open pine and fir cones to extract the protein-rich seeds. Tree seeds from cones above the snow form almost all the bird's diet during part of the year.

Clark's nutcracker

Come spring, the nutcracker varies the menu with insects. Summer brings berries and seeds as well as bugs (and tourists; another name is Camp Robber). Like its jay and crow relatives, the nutcracker is an opportunist, eating whatever is handy.

Howard's physical appearance is unique and easily caricatured. So is Clark's. In fact, Clark himself is something of a caricature; he looks like an overweight mockingbird with a stubby tail. His battleship grey colour resembles the Grey Jay's somewhat, but the Grey Jay has plain dark wings. Clark's crisp black wings sport flashy white patches as he flies.

And that voice...! Howard's is unique, but moreso Clark's. Once you've heard it you'll never forget that grating, nasal Kraaa! Kraaa! Our sportscasting friend is merely the voice of a dozen sporting events annually. But as the loon is the voice of the northern lakes, so is Clark the voice of our whole vast high country.

Eat your heart out, Howard.

Sandy Dengler

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