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Clark’s Nutcracker

These medium-sized birds are known for their gray plumage and similarity to Jays and Crows.

When William Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition found and recorded the Clark’s Nutcracker for science, he mistakenly thought it was a woodpecker. It is actually a relative of crows and jays. Male Clark’s Nutcrackers develop incubation patches and assist the female with incubation.

The Clark’s Nutcracker has a special pouch in its mouth that enables it to carry a larger number of seeds than it would be able to carry in its bill alone. Birds have been recorded as carrying over 100 seeds at a time.


Description of the Clark’s Nutcracker


The Clark’s Nutcracker is larger than most jays but smaller than crows, and is related to both.  It is pale gray with black wings, a short black and white tail, and a white face.


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance



Similar to adults.


High elevation coniferous forests.


Pine seeds are an important component of the diet, but Clark’s Nutcrackers also eat nuts, berries, and insects, along with eggs and young of other birds.


The Clark’s Nutcracker forages both in trees and on the ground, and frequently stores seeds for later retrieval.


Clark’s Nutcrackers are found in mountainous habitat of the western U.S. Their population has increased in recent decades.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Clark’s Nutcracker.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

Clark’s Nutcrackers may store tens of thousands of seeds annually, and they have a large capacity for remembering and retrieving these stored seeds over the winter.

Despite being found near the treeline in remote mountains, Clark’s Nutcrackers are often quite tame when it comes to accepting food from humans near campgrounds or trailheads.

During years when food is scarce, Clark’s Nutcrackers sometimes move to lower elevations far from their normal range.


Calls include a variety of loud, jay-like rattles or yelps


Similar Species

Gray Jay
Gray Jays are slightly smaller and lack black in the wings and tail. Clark’s Nutcrackers have longer bills than other species of similar size with gray and black plumage, such as Northern Mockingbirds or shrikes.



The nest is a large platform of sticks and bark fibers with a lining of grasses and pine needles.  It is usually placed 8-40 feet above the ground on conifer limb.

Number: Usuallysually lay 2-4 eggs.
Color: Pale green with fine, dark markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 16-18 days, and leave the nest in another 18-21 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Clark’s Nutcracker

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Clark’s Nutcracker – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


Lewis’s woodpecker and Clark’s nutcracker were named for the two famous explorers who made that historic trip to the sources of the Missouri River, across the Rocky Mountains and down the Columbia River to the Pacific coast, as they were responsible for the discovery of these two unique and interesting birds. Capt. William Clark, who was the first one to mention the nutcracker, referred to it as “a new species of woodpecker”; and Wilson described it as a crow, Clark’s crow, Corvus colutnbianus. These impressions are not to be wondered at, for its flight and some of its actions are much like those of woodpeckers, and it resembles the crows in much of its behavior. John T. Zimmer (1911) remarks: “It reminded me of nothing so much as a young Red-headed Woodpecker in that its flight was markedly woodpeckerlike and its grayish body and head and its black wings and tail with white on secondaries gave it, at least superficially, a very close resemblance to the bird mentioned.” The first one I saw, while I was crossing the Rocky Mountains in a train, reminded me very much of some large woodpecker bounding across a valley. Its names, both scientific and common, are all well chosen, indicating its feeding habits, its discoverer, and the place of its discovery.

The nutcracker is a niountain bird, ranging from 3,000 feet up to 12,000 or even 13,000 feet, according to latitude and season; its breeding range seems to he mainly between 6,000 and 8,000 feet, or from the lower limit of the coniferous forest up to timber line. It is quite widely distributed in the mountainous regions from southern Alaska and southwestern Alberta to northern Lower California, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Nesting: Many years elapsed after the discovery of the bird before a nest of Clark’s nutcracker was found. This was largely due to the fact that the bird breeds at rather high elevations in the mountains and so early in the season that the ground is covered with deep snow, making traveling very difficult, slow, and limited to small areas. At the time that Major Bendire (1895) wrote his life history of the species he was not aware of the taking of any nests and eggs, except the two taken by Denis Gale in Colorado and those that he took himself near Camp Harney, Oreg., in 1876 and 1878. His account of the finding of his nests is rather interesting:

In March, 1876, I recommenced what looked like an almost fruitless search, in which I had most of the time to tramp through snow from 2 to 4 feet deep; after having examined a great many cavities, mostly in innipers, I was almost ready to give up the task, when I finally examined the pines more closely, and noticed now and then an apparently round ball on the horizontal limbs of some of these trees, which I took to be nests of Fremont’s Chickaree, Sciuru.r hudsonirus fre.tsonti, which is very common in this locality. The maiority of these supposed squirrels’ nests were by no means easily reached, and after trying to dislodge their occupants with sticks, stones, or occasionally with a load of shot, and invariably failing to bring anything to light, I ceased to trouble myself further about them. Being more puzzled than ever, I was about to give up the search for their nests, when, on April 22, after having made more than a dozen fruitless trips, I saw a Clarke’s Nutcracker flying quietly and silently out of a large pine about 50 yards ahead of me. This tree had a rather bushy top and was full of limbs almost from the base and was easy to climb. As I could not see readily into the top from below, I climbed the tree. Failing to see any sign of a nest therein, and being completely disgusted, I was preparing to descend when, on looking around, I noticed one of these supposed squirrels’ nests placed near the extremity of one of the larger limbs, near the middle of the tree, and 25 feet from the ground; it was well hidden from below, and sitting therein, in plain view from above, I saw not a squirrel, but a veritable Clarke’s Nutcracker.

Between April 24 and 30 he found a dozen more nests, all containing young. “In the spring of 1877 I commenced my search for nests on March 15, but failed to see a single bird where I had found them comparatively common during the previous season. Their absence was due in this case to the lack of suitable food. No ripe pine cones were to be found, on the hulled seeds of which the young are at first exclusively fed.” The following year, 1878, the birds were back again in their old haunts, and he found his first nest on April 4; it was near the extremity of a small limb of a pine about 40 feet from the ground. “All of the nests found were placed in nearly similar situations, on horizontal limbs of pines, Pinus ponderosa, from 15 to 45 feet from the ground, in rather open situations at the outskirts of the heavier forests, and usually on side hills with a southeasterly exposure, at an altitude (estimated) of from 5,000 to 5,500 feet”

He describes an average nest as follows:

The nest proper is placed on a platform of dry twigs, mostly those of the western juniper, Jsrniperus occidentul~s, and of the white sage, averaging about three-sixteenth of an inch in thickness, and varying from 8 inches to a foot in length. These twigs, which also help to form the sides of the nest, are deftly matted together and to the smaller twigs of the limb on which the nest is saddled; they are further held together and bound by coarse strips of the inner bark of the juniper tree; these strips are mixed among the twigs and are very suitable for this purpose. The inner nest is a mass of these same bark strips, only much finer, having been well picked into fine fiber; it is quilted together with decayed grasses and pine straw, forming a snug and comfortable structure. No hair or feathers entered into the composition of any of these nests. The outer diameter measures from II to 12 inches by about 7 inches in depth; the cup is from 4 to S inches wide and 3 inches deep. The quilted inner walls are fully I1A inches thick; it is quite deep for its size, and the female while incubating is well hidden. Nest building must occasionally begin in the latter port of February, but more frequently in March, and it appears to take these birds some time to complete one of these structures. Both parents assist in this, as well as in incubation, and the male is apparently equally as attentive and helpful as the female. While they are noisy, rollicking birds at all other times, during the season of reproduction they are remarkably silent and secretive, and are rarely seen.

Both of Mr. Gale’s Colorado nests were placed in low, scrubby pines, Pinus ponderosa; one was only 8 feet from the ground in a tree 20 feet high; and the other was 9 feet up in a 12-foot tree. Several other Colorado nests have been reported by W. C. Bradhury (1917b), who sent H. H. Sheldon to the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Range, in Saguache County, for two seasons in succession to collect nests and eggs of this species. A number of nests were found, mostly containing young even in March and April. Most of the nests were in pinyon pines at heights ranging from 8 to 16 feet; one was in a juniper at 8 feet and another in a large fir at only 7 feet above ground.

In Mono County, Calif., James B. Dixon (1934) found five occupied nests of Clark’s nutcracker on April 9 and 10, 1934; three of these held young and two held eggs. “All of the nests were in juniper trees on steep slopes at the 8000-foot level and contrary to our expectations were located in the coldest spots, where the snow stayed on the ground the longest. It is quite likely that these locations are the freest from the wind which blows so hard at these elevations, and I feel certain the juniper trees are used because of their sturdy build and ability to withstand the wind action. All nest locations seemed to have been selected with protection from the wind in mind, as the nests were either on top of a large limb, or, if supported by a small branch, were surrounded by heavy limbs that gave protection”

J. H. Bo~vles (1908) found these birds rather plentiful near the west end of Lake Chelan, Wash., “where they seemed to prefer an altitude of a little over 1500 feet. Here on June 13 I located the only nest of the trip, which was disclosed to me by the parent birds carrying food to the young. It was about 150 feet up in a large bull pine, near the top where some disease of the foliage had caused an almost solid cluster four feet in diameter”

J. A. Munro (1919) reports three nests found by him and Maj. Allan Brooks in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, on March 9, 1912. “This was in Yellow Pine country; a series of wooded benches overlooking Okanagan Lake.” The first two nests were in yellow pines, Pinus ponderosa, one 50 feet up and 8 feet out from the trunk, and the other 40 feet above ground; each of these nests held two fresh eggs. The third nest was 25 feet from the ground and 12 feet out from the trunk of a Douglas fir; it contained three partly incubated eggs; one of the birds was seen carrying sheep’s wool to the nest.

M. P. Skinner (1916) writes thus of the nesting of the nutcrackers in Wyoming:

About February 1, at Fort Yellowstone, elevation 6300 feet above sea level, the birds are mated and the building of the nest begins, each bird of the pair doing its share. The thick top of a cedar, or other evergreen is selected, with a convenient crotch about twelve feet from the ground. First a rough platform of twigs is built. These twigs are broken from a cedar (western juniper) by a quick, wrenching jerk assisted by the cutting edges of the bill, and carried to the site. Here the material is piled in the crotch till the mass reaches a ball about nine inches in diameter and six inches high. The nest proper is deep and cup shaped, about six inches in diameter, and has walls an inch thick; it is built of cedar or pine needles and the inner lining of grass stems and shredded juniper bark, each strand turned into place by the bird squatting down on it and twisting in it. A few horse hairs and bits of strings are usually included in the lining.

Eggs: Clark’s nutcracker lays, apparently usually, two or three eggs, but often four and occasionally as many as five or even six. They vary in shape from ovak to elliptical-ovate and are only slightly glossy. The ground color is a pale shade of “lichen green,” pale grayish greer~, or very pale, clear green, almost greenish white. They are usually thinly, evenly, and rather sparingly spotted with minute dots, small spots or flecks of pale browns, or shades of olive, gray, or drab. Sometimes the spots are more concentrated about the larger end, and sometimes the smaller end is almost unmarked.

The measurements of 50 eggs average 32.4 by 23.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 35.0 by 23.4, 34.5 by 25.2, 29.2 by 23.2, and 33.5 by 21.6 millimeters.

Young: Both sexes assist in the duties of incubation and care of the young. Bendire (1895) gives the period of incubation, “as nearly as I can judge, about sixteen or seventeen days.” This agrees closely with the reported period for the European bird, 17 to 18 days. But M. P. Skinner (1916) says that in Yellowstone Park the eggs “are laid between February 28 and March 3, and the brooding commences immediately. At such a time the brooding bird is subjected to all the vagaries of truly wintry weather.” “Often,” he says, “she sits through raging snowstorms protected only by the tuft of cedar needles over the nest, and many times has the writer seen the bird actually on the nest with the thermometer below zero. Under such conditions she draws herself down with only her tail feathers and perhaps her bill showing above the rim of the nest. She is very fearless, even submitting to capture rather than leave the nest; when she leaves, she does so quietly, and returns immediately after the intruder is gone. After brooding twenty-two days the young are hatched, naked of course, and with their eyes closed. Four weeks later the young leave the nest and by May 5 are fully feathered and shifting for themselves. Notwithstanding this early start there is no evidence to show that a second brood is raised”

The longer period of incubation and the longer altricial period, as given by Mr. Skinner above, was probably exceptional or due to too much exposure to wintry weather. For Major Bendire (1895) says that the young remain in the nest only about eighteen days; and Mr. Bradhury (1917b) showed the altricial period to be about three weeks.

Mrs. Wheelock (1904) says that the young “were fed on pifion nuts, which were carried to the nest and hulled by the adult while perched just outside on the branch. I could not discover that any other food was brought them. At first this was given by regurgitation, but when the young were a few days old the food was supplied to them direct. As soon as they were ready to leave the nest they were coaxed by short flights to the nut pines, and readily learned to shell the nuts and provide for themselves. Then it would seem a complete change of diet was necessary; for they disappeared from these regions entirely, flocking to a locality where berries, fish, and insects abound. By the middle of June not one was left in the old breeding grounds”

Apparently the young are also fed by regurgitation after they have left the nest, for Taylor and Shaw (1927) write: “The nutcrackLr population becomes most conspicuous when the young have left the nest. The husky youngsters appear quite as large as their parents, and their squawking calls fill the air. They follow the adults with a persistence truly wonderful, awakening the echoes with their stentorian teasing. Presently the parent plunges its bill into the open mouth of the young one, and there ensues what appears to be a struggle for life or death. There is of course no occasion for concern, for this, in nutcracker society, is the orthodox method of feeding the young. The process of regurgitation complete, the participants seem to feel better all around. The respite must seem all too brief to the parent, however, for in a short time the young bird is apparently as hungry and as noisy as ever”

Mr. Dixon (1934) says that “in the event one of the parents left the nest from any cause, the other bird of the pair would immediately assume brooding duties. * * * Actual time records taken on the afternoon of the 9th of April, which was a warm sunshiny afternoon, revealed a change of brooding and feeding duties every thirty minutes on the average”

Plumages: The young are hatched naked and with eyes closed, but, when perhaps a week or so old, they are partly covered with down (Bradhury, 1917b), the color not mentioned. The juvenal plumage is acquired before the young bird leaves the nest. Charles F. Batchelder (1884) gives the first full description of the juvenal plumage of Clark’s nutcracker in more minute detail than seems necessary here. In a general way, the color pattern is much like that of the adult, but the gray portions are browner and the blacks duller. The upper parts are dull brownish gray, darkest on the rump and scapulars. The white eye ring, superciliary stripe, and the other white about the face of the adult are lacking. The general coloring of the under parts is brownish ash, darkest on the breast, most of the feathers tipped with whitish, giving an indistinct barred effect. The wings are much like those of the adult, but the white in the secondaries is more extensive, some of the primaries have a small ashy spot at the tip, the lesser wing coverts are dusky grayish brown, and the other coverts are indistinctly tipped with the same. The tail is like that of the adult, but the black in the white rectrices is more extensive. The black in both wings and tail is duller than in the adult, and the bill and feet are grayer. I have not seen the postjuvenal molt, but I have seen adults molting in July, August, and September.

Food: Like other members of the crow family, the nutcracker is largely omnivorous, though it seems to show a decided preference for the sweet nuts of the pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), eating the shells as well as the kernels. Grinnell and Storer (1924) report that a female shot on September 22 “held in its throat 72 ripe seeds of the pifion, comprising a volume of about one cubic inch.” Another female taken September 25 “held in her distended throat 65 mature seeds of the white-bark pine, and some fragments, all together weighing 10 grams or close to 7 per cent of the weight of the bird, which was 146 grams”

It eats the seeds of several other species of pines and even firs, extracting the seeds from the cones with its crowbarlike beak. Acorns and the berries of the cedar or juniper are included in the diet. Mr. Skinner (1916) says: “Sometimes they will tear the cone to pieces even while the cone is still fast to the branch, often perched at the very tip of a bending branch, or even underneath, clinging in a manner creditable to a chickadee or a nuthatch. More often the cone is detached and carried away to a strong limb where it is held by one foot while the bird strikes strong, downward blows at it with its pickaxlike bill. At times the bird will secure a seed at every second stroke and at the same time tear the cone to shreds”

J. A. Munro tells me that Clark’s nutcrackers were noted commonly in a valley in British Columbia on May 17 and 19, 1940. “In one plac.e a flock of twenty-five (plus) rose from a field in which spring wheat was just appearing. It seemed likely they were feeding on the sprouted grain”

Mr. Bradbury (1917b) reports that “the stomachs of the old birds examined always contained masses of pinyon shells, this far exceeding in bulk the mixture of insects and meat of pinyon nuts, about 75 per cent nut food and 25 per cent insects and other matter.” One nutcracker was seen feeding on the remains of a deer.

Claude T. Barnes (MS.) thus describes the feeding habits of Clark’s nutcracker, as observed at an altitude of 7,050 feet in the Wasatch Mountains (,f Utah: “Near me an ancient, gnarled limber pine (Pinus flexilis) stood on a wind-exposed knoll, raising a broad, open crown on a brown-plated trunk 2 feet in thickness. The ground beneath it was strewn with subcylindrical cones, 5 inches long and 3 inches in diameter at the base. One of the nutcrackers flew to the tree above me, alighting on the outer tip of an upper branch, where a cone was suspended. Standing above the cone and working almost upside down, it pecked with its strong, cylindrical bill at the base of the cone, clinging the while to the brancji with its large toes and sharp, much curved claws. Pecking eagerly every two or three seconds, it at times almost tilted over head first, but without releasing the toe holds, fluttered back to balance. Finally, after about 40 pecks and probes at the pencil-thick stalk of the cone, the cone began to fall; whereupon it clasped the cone with its bill and flew to a thick horizontal limb below.

There it took its time in prying out the quarter-inch seeds, two beneath each scale, and swallowed them with apparent satisfaction. Another bird alighted on a small tree and, as I stood only ten feet away, probed out all the seeds of a cone without severing its stalk and without minding my presence.~~ The nutcracker shares with the jays of the Perisoreus group the name of “meat bird” or “camp robber,” for, especially in winter when other food is scarce, it comes freely to the camps to pick up whatever scraps of food it can find, and almost anything edible is welcome; at such times it becomes quite bold, frequenting the open-air kitchen and even occasionally entering the tent or cabin. It invades the vicinity of farms and houses, looking for kitchen hand-outs or picking up crumbs of bread or waste grain in the streets. Larger scraps of food are often carried away to be eaten at leisure or hidden for future use.

It sometimes indulges in the bad habit, common to most of the Corvidae, of robbing the nests of the smaller birds and devouring their eggs or small nestlings. J. A. Munro (1919) says that ‘several nests of Hermit Thrushes, Horned Larks and Pipits, that were under observation, above timber line on Apex Mountain, were destroyed by a pair of Clark’s Nutcrackers.” And several others have referred to this same habit.

Insects enter largely into the food of this bird during summer and before the pinyon nuts are ripe. Some time is spent on the ground hunting for beetles, ants, grasshoppers, and the destructive black crickets. Some insects are caught on the wing in true flycatcher fashion; from a perch in the dead top of a tree the nutcracker watches for passing insects, darts out and chases them in an erratic course, and returns to its perch. Mrs. Bailey (1928) says that “two were seen near camp on a log, running back and forth chasing sphynx moths that were feeding from the larkspurs bordering the log”

Mrs. Wheelock (1904) writes: “Grasshoppers and the big wingless black crickets he devours in untold numbers, and grows fat on the diet. Butterflies he catches on the wing in flycatcher fashion; grubs he picks from the bark, clinging to the side of the tree trunks and hammering like a woodpecker”

Dec3~er and Bowles (1931) observed the feeding habits of a large flock of over a hundred nutcrackers in the Blue Mountains of Washington:

A good deal of feeding was evidently done high up in the trees, where they spent most of their time, but on frequent occasions the whole flock would come down and feed on the ground. * * * Their food when on the ground consisted principally of the large black ants, beetles and snails. The ants being in enormous numbers were eaten by the thousand, and it was very noticeable to see how careful the birds were to make sure of thoroughly killing them before eating. Every ant was beaten to a pulp before it was swallowed, so there was no chance that the powerful forceps of the insect might injure the throat or stomach of the bird. The beetles received considerably less punishment, but the body of the snails were carefully picked out of the shell before swallowing. We threw them some of our own food, but they did not seem to care especially for it, presumably because they had such an abundance of natural food. The number of black ants these birds eat must be far beyond calculation, as not one of these insects could be found for some time after the birds flew up into the timber.

Victor H. Cahalane (1944) tells an interesting story of a nutcracker’s ability to locate food under 8 inches of snow; he flushed one from the ground under a Douglas fir, and found that the bird “had dug a hole three or four inches in diameter at the top, at an angle of perhaps .30 degrees, through the hard-packed snow to the sloping ground. At the bottom of the excavation, frozen to the ground litter, was a Douglas fir cone.” The snow was so deep that there was no indication on the surface of the presence of the cone; the bird had done no exploratory digging, but had dug the hole with remarkable accuracy in exactly the right spot.

Behavior: I always liked the old generic name Picicorvus, as it seemed particularly appropriate for a bird that so much resembles the woodpeckers and the crows in behavior and appearance. My first impression of it was that of a large woodpecker, and others, including its discoverer, got the same impression. Its flight, as I remember it, is undulating like that of a woodpecker; and most observers seem to have seen it that way. Dr. Coues (1874), however, says that “the ordinary flight is rapid, straight, and steady, accomplished by regular and vigorous wing-beats; hut when flying only from tree to tree, the birds swing themselves in an undulatory course, with the wings alternately spread and nearly closed, much in the manner of the Woodpeckers”

They sometimes soar high in the air like hawks, with wings and tails widely spread, or from some dizzy height make a spectacular dive earthward. Mrs. Wheelock (1904) writes:

It is on the crests of the Sierra Nevada that these birds are found most abundantly. Here they sun themselves on the highest peaks, frolicking noisily in the clear, bracing air. When hungry or thirsty, they dart from their lofty perches and, with wings folded, hurl themselves down the cai’ion with the speed of a bullet. Just as you are sure they will be dashed to pieces, their wings open with an explosive noise and the headlong fall is checked in a moment. Sometimes the descent is finished as lightly as the fall of a bit of thistle down; sometimes by another series of swift flights; often by one rocket-like plunge. At the foot a mountain brook furnishes food and drink. As the shadows creep up the sides of the cafion, the Nutcrackers follow the receding sunlight to the summit again, mounting by very short flights from tree to tree, in the same way that a jay climbs to the top of a tree by hopping from one branch to another.

Nutcrackers also show their relationship to the jays by their noisy, boisterous habits, their inquisitive curiosity, and their behavior on the ground, where they hop rather awkwardly about foraging for fallen nuts and insects. Their straight forward flight, at times, is also much like that of our blue jay; and their thieving propensities are in keeping with those of the whole corvine tribe. Mr. Munro (1919) says: “Like all corvine birds, they are exceedingly curious and a passing deer or coyote will attract their attention so that the position of game can often be located by their excited cries. They come readily to an imitation of the call of the Pygmy Owl or the Horned Owl and will investigate the caller at close range.

Referring to their methods of securing pine cones, Mr. Skinner (1916) writes: “Being bold, independent free-lances these birds will vary their methods by robbing a pine squirrel of his cone; even going so far as to knock the squirrel from his limb with one blow from their bills at the end of a long, swift swoop. The pine squirrel knows this, too; and it is delicious to see the squirrel, whose own abilities as a robber are not small, glide into some protection and hurl vituperation at his enemies. Nor are the nutcrackers at all backward at ‘sassing’ back. Many a time the somber, evergreen forests are enlivened by such a squawking match, joined in by all the squirrels and nutcrackers in hearing”

J. Stuart Rowley (1939) says: “Near Virginia Creek on July 4, 1939, I tapped a dead pine stub and was surprised to see several nearly fledged young chickadees ‘explode’ in my face and fly uncertainly down a ravine. Immediately, two nutcrackers swooped down, concentrating their attack on one individual. One nutcracker seized the fledgling, whereupon it flew to a pine and proceeded to pick off feathers from the tail and wings of the chickadee before tearing it to bits and devouring it”

Voice: Not much can be said in favor of the voice of Clark’s nutcracker. It is generally conceded to be harsh, grating, and unpleasant, especially when heard in volume, as it often is, and when not softened by distance. It is a noisy bird, except when near its nest. Its ordinary guttural, squawking call is variously written as chaar, char-r-r, chur-r-r, kra-a-a, or kar-r-r-r-ack, each note repeated two or three times.

Mr. Dawson (1923) adds the following variations: “But the Nutcracker’s repertory is not exhausted by a single cry. For years I was puzzled by sporadic eruptions of a strange, feline cry, meack, or mearrk, a piercing and rather frightful sound. The Clark Nutcracker proved at last to be responsible, and he was only at play! The very next morning after the mountain lion scare, we had the versatile birds as musicians. Two of them got out their little toy trumpets, pitched about a fifth apart, and proceeded to give us. the Sierran reveille, hee Ace hee, hee hee, hoo hoohoo hoo [etc.]. The notes were really quite musical, and the comparison established of children’s tin trumpets was irresistible. The effect produced by the two birds sounding in different keys was both pleasant and amusing. * * * The concert lasted for two or three minutes”

Decker and Bowles (1931) say that their incessant cries were heard “during the entire time that they were up in the trees. They would commence a little after daylight and we have never heard such a racket from any other members of the animal kingdom. Besides innumerable calls that must have belonged peculiarly to themselves they also included every known call of the Magpie and the Crow that is uttered by either the young or the old birds of those species. This last may be because both adult and young of the year were present and all screaming at the top of their lungs, making a din that’ at times grew extremely tiresome and, indeed, almost unbearable. Oddly enough, when on or near the ground they are absolutely silent”

Field marks: The nutcracker is a fairly large bird, between a small crow and a large woodpecker in size. It has a long, sharp, black bill; its head and body are pale gray; its wings are black, with a large white patch on the secondaries; and its tail is centrally black but largely white laterally. Its behavior and its voice are distinctive, as explained above.

Winter: “Although the Clark Nutcracker is a characteristic resident of the Hudsonian Zone, it strays both above and below this belt. In summer, after the broods of the year are fledged, some of the birds move down the mountains. * * * And at the same season they sometimes wander up over the rock-strewn ridge crests well above timber line. Some of the nutcrackers which stray to the lower altitudes remain there at least until early winter. * * * But most of the birds remain at the normal high altitudes through the winter months” (Grinnell and Storer, 1924).

In addition to these altitudinal movements the nutcrackers do considerable erratic wandering in winter, appearing unexpectedly at irregular intervals in various small cities and towns, even near the coast, notably in Monterey and Alameda Counties, Calif., where they become familiar dooryard visitors.

Joseph Mailliard (1920) writes of their winter behavior at Carmel, Calif: “The Nutcrackers had discovered that kitchen doors and back yards were good for some free ‘hand-outs’, and they systematically visited many such. While they fed to some extent on the Monterey pines, apparently more intent upon the tips of young buds than upon the contents of the cones, they picked also a good many scraps and bits of grain or crumbs in the streets, paying no attention to people twenty or thirty feet away, but becoming wary of closer approach. They seemed to have certain hours for being in certain places, and for the first few days of my stay appeared in the street opposite the dining room window while we were at breakfast”

Range: Western United States and Canada, and Alaska; casual east to Lake Michigan and the Mississippi Valley; not regularly migratory.

The normal range of Clark’s nutcracker extends north to central British Columbia (Fort St. James and Moose Pass) ; Alberta (Jasper House, Banif, and Porcupine Hills) ; Montana (Glacier National Park, Statesville, and Billings) ; and northwestern South Dakota (Short Pine Hills). East to western South Dakota (Short Pine Hills and Elk Mountains) ; southeastern Wyoming (Laramie Peak) ; Colorado (Estes Park, Cheyenne Mountain, and Blanco Peak); and New Mexico (Santa Fe Canyon, Diamond Peak, and San Luis Pass). South to southern New Mexico (San Luis Pass) ; Arizona (Mount Graham and Santa Catalina Mountains); and northern Baja California (San Pedro M~srtir Mountains). West to Baja California (San Pedro M~rtir Mountains and La Grulla) ; eastern California (Bear Valley, Florence Lake, Yosemite Valley, and Butte Lake) ; Oregon (Pinehurst and Crater Lake) Washington (Bumping Lake and Lake Chelan) ; and British Columbia (Alta Lake, Lillooct, and Fort St. James).

Casual records: Although not a regular migrant, the nutcracker is given to erratic wanderings that sometimes take it considerable distance from its normal range. In Alaska it has been recorded on the southeast coast at Sitka and north to the Kowak River. Other Alaskan records are: Nushagak, November 5, 1885; Takotna, October 1, 1919; Fare~vell Mountain, September, 1921; Chatanika River, September 1922; and McCarthy, November, 1922. According to Taverner, it also has been collected at Robinson, Yukon. On the coast of British Columbia it has been recorded from Comox, February 18, 1904, and wintering on Graham Island in 1919-20. During the period from October 1919 to April 1920 it appeared in considerable numbers on the coast of southern California as at Pacific Grove, Carmel. and Santa Cruz Island, while one was killed near Hayward on February 16, 1923. One was taken at Coachella, Calif., 44 feet below sea level on September 24, 1935.

There are several records for the Great Plains region east to Manitoba, Margaret, October 1910; Iowa, Boone, September 23, 1894; Wisconsin, Milwaukee, fall of 1875; Illinois, Gross Point, October 9, 1894; Missouri, near Kansas City, about October 28, 1894, and Louisiana, October 12, 1907; and Arkansas, Earl, April 1, 1891.

Egg dates: British Columbia: 11 records, March 9 to May 25.

California: 32 records, March 7 to April 21; 16 records, March 24 to April 13.

Colorado: 8 records, March 5 to April 16. Utah: 6 records, March 23 to April 25.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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