Scientific Name: Nucifraga columbiana

Order: Passeriformes

Family: Corvidae (which also includes ravens, crows, jays, and magpies)

Sketch by Hazel Stark
Sketch by Hazel Stark

Description: Pigeon-sized bird with mostly gray body, dark eye, and long, pointed, black bill. Wings are black with large white wing patches. Tail black with white outer tail feathers.

Habitat: Conifer stands in high mountain ranges–from 3,000 feet to 11,000 feet in the West.

Diet: Primarily pine seeds, but they also opportunistically eat insects, small birds, rodents, toads, and carrion.

Breeding Ecology: They will breed as early as January or February because they can feed their young on cached pine seeds. Males and females incubate the eggs; the males even develop a brood patch (a featherless area that provides direct skin-to-egg contact for added warmth)–unusual among male corvids.

Other Natural History Notes: They use their long bills to open pine cone scales and access the seeds within. They stash seeds in a pouch under their tongue to later cache for winter. Each Clark’s Nutcracker buries tens of thousands of seeds per summer and remembers the locations of most of the caches. Seeds they forget about are crucial for growing new forests, making many pine species dependent on Clark’s Nutcrackers to disperse their seeds.

The Clark’s Nutcracker was one of three new bird species brought back from the Lewis and Clark (thus the name…) Expedition.