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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

The Clark's Nutcracker

Like many things in life, a person gets out of bird watching what they put into it. It is a simple thing to put up a bird feeder to attract some of our little friends and to identify them with the help of a guidebook. The more types of feeders that are put up, the more types of birds that will be attracted. For instance, a seed dispenser will attract seed eating birds whereas a suet dispenser will attract those that think that life is more than a bowl of cherry pits. Nectar feeders turn backyard into war zones, proving that the most selfish creatures in our area are not those living in gated communities, but hummingbirds. But the hard fact of the matter is that backyard feeders will only attract a very limited number of species. If they are not coming to you, you’re going to need to go to them, or your life list of identified birds will be limited to a couple dozen—all of which you know, very, very well.

There is so much to be seen in life off the beaten path and nothing demonstrates this more than birding. Some of the most unusual and interesting bird species in our area only exist off the highways and byways of our normal, regular lives. And one of the most beautiful and striking of these is Clark’s Nutcracker. If one of these birds show up at your backyard feeder you either live far off the beaten path or it is the Apocalypse.

If you are a Northwest native, you probably correctly surmised that this bird was named after that indomitable explorer William Clark. He was the first Westerner to identify it. It is a fairly large bird, smaller than the crow, but bigger than a jay. It is also related to both of these and seems to have characteristics of each. To find one you are going to have to climb. Get up high on some ridge line or mountain top near the tree line, and chances are it will be you who is discovered by the nutcracker. Yup, just like the rest of the Corvidae family, they are curious folk.

The plumage of this nutcracker is unlike any other bird. They are a steely-blue gray that might appear white from a distance. They have black wings and tail, and with white accents on both. These white highlights become most apparent when the bird is in flight. Look for the bright white trailing edges of the central wing primaries and both edges of the tail. Quite beautiful in flight. The birds also have huge, black, pointed bills that almost looks like they belong on a woodpecker. Their call reminds me of the kaw-kaw-kaw of a Steller’s jay. 

As the name suggests, this bird is a nutcracker—if you consider pine cones to be nuts. These birds are prodigious harvesters of pine seeds and individual birds are able to harvest tens of thousands of seeds in a given year. And what do they do with all of these seeds? They hide ‘em!  Clark’s Nutcracker maintain scores of caches where they stow away seeds for the winter. Experiments have demonstrated that these birds have memories as big as their appetites and are able to remember most, if not all, of their hiding places. And the ones they forget are probably found by the squirrels. As it true for most birds that rely primarily on plant material for food, they also take in a good share of meat, be it insects, bird eggs, or carrion.

I recently encountered a Clark’s Nutcracker during a hike up Mount Baldy with my sister, Annie, and my brother, Jeff. The bird kept following us making sure we weren’t up to no good. If we observed the bird for too long, he (or she) would fly off. Once we headed back up the path our little feathered sheriff’s deputy continued his monitoring. I think he was afraid we’d find one of his pine seed storage units.

Get out there! Hit the trail! Grab your binoculars, your Sibley Guide to Birds, and your hydrating unit (water bottle). Climb, climb, climb (or take the Jeep), find some pine trees and wait to be discovered by that big white and black cop. You won’t be disappointed. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, nutcracker, Clarks nutcracker

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