On Monday, Oct. 15, Mike Krieger phoned to let me know that he and Kathy had their first Clark’s nutcracker at their bird feeder near Bailey. These big, gray, black and white members of the crow family look like a small gray crow with black wings and tail. They are strange birds that act like they couldn’t decide whether to be a crow or a woodpecker.
They are big when compared with most of our feeder birds. They are bigger than a robin and smaller than a crow. They have a big, powerful long beak, which they use to tear pinecones apart to obtain the seeds. They fly with the undulating flight of a woodpecker, and they have a coarse guttural call that sounds somewhat like a sandhill crane.
The Clark’s nutcracker and the Lewis’s woodpecker were named to honor the two famous explorers of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that explored so much of the West and were the first to collect specimens of these two birds, write scientific descriptions of them and send the specimens back east to the scientific institutions already established there.
Clark’s nutcracker is indeed a member of the crow family. They have the shape and build of a small crow. They are true western birds, being found in the mountains from around 8,000 feet to timberline, which of course varies in different locations. They nest very early in the spring, usually in March or early April when there is still snow at such altitudes. The nest is usually placed on a big limb of a pine where there is a thick growth of small pine branches and is often thought to be a squirrel nest. It is not unusual to still have snow at such high altitudes in March and April, therefore the female is often seen incubating her eggs with snow on her back, although both parents help with the incubation of eggs and the feeding of young.
Nutcrackers are common summer residents at Echo Lake, and almost every picnic or camping area in the national forest and national park lands has its resident nutcrackers for they soon learn to become moochers. Once rather shy birds of the high country, they have learned that campers and picnickers mean food. Any pulloff or campsite where tourists stop frequently will usually produce a couple of nutcrackers as soon as you get out of your car. Due to this, they are affectionately called camp robbers by many people. One will fly in and stay quietly on top of some tree to see what is going on. As soon as any food appears, you will hear the scout begin its guttural call to notify others that dinner is about to be served.
In winter, especially during years where there is a poor crop of pinecones, they tend to drop below 8,000 feet in search of food, especially in populated areas where they are likely to find bird feeders. During the ‘70s, there was a winter invasion of Clark’s nutcrackers all along the foothills. There must not have been any cones at all at higher elevations, and soon everyone who has a feeder also had anywhere from one to several nutcrackers.
They found sunflower seeds just as good as pine seeds, and suet was manna from Heaven. Soon everyone was buying suet until there was none available. Everyone was asking friends who travel out of the area to bring them suet when they returned. It was at this time that I watched an interesting feeding method of Clark’s nutcrackers. Although the books I had read about Clark’s nutcrackers all mention that they tore pinecones apart with their beaks, no one mentioned the method used by the birds that fed regularly at my house.
It would land on the ground below a big ponderosa pine and find a big, ripe cone and pick it up in its beak. Then it would tip its head backward as far as possible and with a sudden jerk of its head, send the cone forward to drop to the ground, often bouncing a few times. He then ate all the seeds that had been dislodged and fallen out.
These big birds are often found at Evergreen altitude during a winter when seed is scarce, so watch for them at your feeder. Like crows, they are very smart about finding where food is available. In summer, look for them at Echo Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park and other tourist stops at or above 8,000 feet. Like crows, they are smart, interesting birds.