Clark’s Nutcracker Prepares for Winter

June 24, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

If you live in North America you may well be familiar with the Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga Columbiana). This adorable passerine bird is fairly large in size and is ash-grey in color with black and white wings and tail feathers. The bill, legs and feet of the Clark’s Nutcracker are also black – all in all a fairly ordinary looking bird. However, the Clark’s Nutcracker is anything but ordinary.

The Clark’s Nutcracker is a fairly industrious bird that works hard to ensure that he has enough food for the winter months. He collects and buries about 33 000 seeds every year! What’s more, he does not store them in the same location but may choose from as many as 2 500 different storage spots when deciding where to keep his winter hoard. Clearly this is not your typical bird! The average Clark’s Nutcracker is well equipped to handle the cold winter months with such a large supply of food. How the bird knows exactly where it has placed its little stockpiles is another mystery. It seems their long-term spatial memory allows them to relocate caches with noteworthy accuracy for a period of up to six months – even if their little hidey holes are located under three feet of snow!

These intriguing birds feed on a number of different foods, but their most important food resource is that of pine seeds – something which is quite widespread in North America. However, when the breeding season is over, the birds may wonder down to lower altitudes where they may use the seeds of pinyon pines or search out other food sources. Once they have gathered up these seeds they may store them in the ground in caches of 5-10 seeds. The reason they store so many seeds in different places is to ensure that they will still have some food if one or two of their caches are raided by other animals such as squirrels. Thus the Clark’s Nutcracker is one of nature’s foremost tree planters, since any seeds that are not consumed by the end of the winter months are left to germinate and grow into beautiful trees.

Other foods consumed by the Clark’s Nutcracker include insects, berries, some fruits, peanuts, small mammals and occasionally carrion. They have even been known to eat eggs and nestlings! Fortunately this is the exception rather than the rule and it seems that Clark’s Nutcrackers generally prefer to stick to pine tree seeds, which they are perfectly adapted to retrieve from pine cones.

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