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Clark’s nutcracker

NUCIFRAGA COLUMBIANA

By late August, whitebark pines of high mountain peaks are heavy with ripening cones that trap their own seeds. Pinned behind woody scales, these seeds are dependent on being dispersed by one of the mountains’ most interesting characters. Arriving in large, playful flocks, Clark’s nutcrackers set to work prying seeds from their housings and burying them on distant hillsides. Each bird carries as many as 80 seeds at a time in a special pouch under its tongue and over the course of three months buries up to 98,000 seeds in about 30,000 separate caches. The nutcracker’s remarkable spatial memory enables it to recover these caches, even when the seeds are hidden under snow. In fact, the bird’s cognitive ability is considered comparable to dolphins’ and chimpanzees’. More than half the seeds buried by nutcrackers are left behind and germinate into the next generation of trees.

NATURAL HISTORY

The relationship between nutcrackers and different pine species is one of the dominant biotic features of the northern hemisphere. Some scientists believe that nutcrackers have planted nearly all the northern subalpine forests of the world.

KEY CHARACTERISTICS

This large, long-billed jay has a pale gray body and strikingly patterned black-and-white wings and tail. This bird is well known in the mountains of California because it visits campgrounds and campsites in hopes of handouts.


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