Crawlies with Cri: Clark’s nutcracker and whitebark pine

Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis)
(Photos by Christy Solo for the Illinois Valley News)

In honor of the whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) receiving endangered species status Dec. 14, this week we’ll revisit the whitebarks’ keystone species; Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana).
If you’ve ever been to Crater Lake, you have no doubt already met this week’s crawly, the Clark’s Nutcracker Even if you’re familiar with them, you may not know how super cool these birds are.
Clark’s was first described in 1805 by William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Clark mistakenly thought the nutcracker was a woodpecker per his original description; “I saw today a Bird of the woodpecker kind which fed on Pine Burs—its bill and tail white, the wings black, every other part of a light brown, and about the size of a robin.” With their sharp, pointy beaks, it’s easy to see how Clark made this assumption.
However, nutcrackers are actually in the Corvidae (AKA “corvid”) family, along with jays, crows and ravens. Don’t tell the woodpeckers, but this means the nutcracker is much more intelligent than they are. In addition to being bold like their corvid cousins, nutcrackers have a plethora of unique habits and traits. They come by the “nutcracker” name honestly. They are nuts for nuts. Various pine seeds in particular, as well as whitebark pine seeds are their favorites. A nutcracker will hide thousands of seeds each year, and they are so smart they will remember where they hid nearly all of them.
They like and depend on pine seeds so much, they even feed them to their hatchlings. Because they feed their young stored foods, they can start breeding as early as January, even in the harsh winter conditions of their normal habitat: mountainous areas 3,000 – 11,000 feet in altitude.
Nutcrackers have another unique advantage when it comes to breeding success in chilly climates; both males and females incubate the eggs. When it comes to other corvids, only females have that duty. Nutcrackers trade off, so the eggs are kept toasty warm all the time, never cooling when a parent is out foraging for food. Those favored pine seeds also help nutcrackers thrive in the cold. Ounce for ounce, pine seeds have more calories than chocolate.
Nutcrackers are also a keystone species, which means they are “…one so closely connected with other organisms that if the keystone species becomes rare or extinct there will follow other losses and negative effects in food webs.” ~Crater Lake Institute
They store more seeds each year than they can eat, and many of those not eaten grow into new whitebark pine. Their ‘Johnny Appleseed…or Pineseed’ propensity just may be the saving grace for the whitebark pine Crater Lake is famous for. Whitebark is considered a vulnerable species and on the consideration list for endangered species*. They’re being hit with a four-part combination of an exotic fungus called white pine blister rust, mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) infestations, wildfires and climate change causing loss of habitat and forcing whitebark further up those mountain slopes.
Nutcrackers are the whitebark’s best bet for long-term survival, but they’ll have to move higher up with the trees.
Crater Lake is almost as famous for its sculpture-like whitebark as it is for the lake itself, so let’s hope those nutcrackers keep on cracking.

*Note: On Dec.14, 2022 U.S. Fish & Wildlife announced the whitebark pine officially received endangered species status.