Clark’s nutcracker has things to crow about

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By Sylvia Brockner

Editor’s note: This week we’re reprinting a column that Sylvia wrote in November 1972.

The past few snowstorms resulted in my receiving several phone calls and queries from friends asking about the birds at their feeders.

The bird most often inquired about was the Clark’s nutcracker. This fine big fellow is a member of the crow family. The family corvidae includes all of the jays, magpies and crows, and the nutcracker seems to share many characteristics of all of them. He looks like a small gray crow with black wings and tail, large flashing white wing patches when he flies, and white bordering the outer edges of the tail. He has a loud, guttural call, which makes you immediately associate him with the jays.

The Clark’s nutcracker also has many of the clown-like swashbuckling antics, as well as the wary vigilance, of magpies and crows. A bird of the coniferous forests, they generally prefer to nest at a higher altitude than Evergreen and are a common resident from about 8,000 feet to timberline. For some unknown reason they nest very early, often in February and March when the weather at such altitudes is severe.

The female frequently broods her eggs, hunched down in her nest with only her tail and beak showing above the snow on her back. Both parents help at the nest, and if the female leaves in search of food, the male immediately takes her place to keep the eggs or newly hatched young warm. By May or early June when other birds are beginning to nest, young nutcrackers are nearly grown and on their own. They become great moochers and frequent campgrounds, picnic areas and summer resorts, where people delight in feeding them. Look for them at Echo Lake and Squaw Mountain.

In the fall, for unexplained reasons, Clark’s nutcrackers often take a vacation trip. They wander down the mountains to lower elevations and at times have been observed far out on the plains of Nebraska. This may be caused by a search for food. In the summer their food is composed of various seeds, berries and insects, but in the winter they depend heavily upon the seed of the ponderosa and other pines, as well as Douglas fir. If there is poor cone crop, they must wander elsewhere to find an area where the crop is good. It is here they will nest and raise their young, who apparently are fed exclusively on pine seeds.

This fall and early winter a great number seem to have wandered into the Evergreen area, for a least 12 people have reported them at their feeders, and Jean Gravell reported seeing a flock of 25 or more feeding on the ground beneath the pines off the old Stagecoach Road. The bird is named for George Rogers Clark, the junior leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition who first observed the bird in Idaho and sent the first specimen to be studied, named and recorded by scientists.