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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Clark's Nutcracker - Nucifraga columbiana

Species of Concern

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3

Agency Status
PIF: 3


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Copyright by: The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, all rights reserved.
General Description
Clark's Nutcracker is a jay-sized corvid that is crowlike in build and flight, with moderate sexual size dimorphism. Total length of adults 27.0 to 30.1 cm. Mass 106 to 161 g. Males slightly larger than females. Sexes similar in appearance. Light to medium gray, with varying amounts of white around eyes, on forehead, and on chin; white around vent and at base of tail; wings and tail glossy black; secondaries broadly tipped with white forming a white patch; outer rectrices white. Folded wings nearly reach tip of tail. Long, pointed, black bill with short nasal bristles. Distinctive grating call audible at great distance (Tomback 1998).

Diagnostic Characteristics
Clark's Nutcracker is distinctive in appearance and behavior, and unlike any other corvid in Montana. Plumage is similar to that of the Northern Shrike and Northern Mockingbird, but the longer, straighter bill and larger body distinguish nutcrackers from these species. White and black markings in the wings and tail, in combination with the other body characters and the sharp grating "craaaww" call, help distinguish a nutcracker. Other similar-appearing species don't travel in conspecific flocks, as nutcrackers often do.

Species Range
Montana Range

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Western Hemisphere Range

eBird Occurrence Map

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Courtesy of eBird and Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Range Comments
Clark's Nutcrackers are year-round residents from central British Columbia and west-central Alberta south through the mountain ranges and pine-covered ridges of the West to southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico; an isolated population persists on Cerro el Potosi in Nuevo Leon, Mexico (Contreras-Balderas 1992, Tomback 1998).

Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 7098

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


(direct evidence "B")

(indirect evidence "b")

No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")

(regular observations "W")

(at least one obs. "w")


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Permanent resident in the state. May be nomadic but not migratory in the typical sense.

Nutcrackers in Montana typically occupy conifer forests dominated by whitebark pine at higher elevations and ponderosa pine and limber pine along with Douglas firs at lower elevations, relying largely on seeds of these species for food (Saunders 1921, Mewaldt 1956, Giuntoli and Mewaldt 1978). They often are seen above treeline in alpine meadows or flying among drainages (Johnson 1966, Pattie and Verbeek 1966).
Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of “observations versus availability of habitat”.
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were associated as using an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at or (406) 444-3655.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species’ known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana’s amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
The year-round diet consists primarily of fresh and stored pine seeds, but also includes insects and spiders, small animals (birds and mammals) and carrion (Tomback 1998). Conifer seeds (mostly ponderosa pine) made up 83% of the ingested food and occurred in the stomachs of all but nine of the 426 nutcrackers collected at low to moderate elevation in western Montana during 1946-1949. Nutcrackers ate Douglas fir seeds only during the fall and winter of 1946-47, when a bumper crop occurred (Giuntoli and Mewaldt 1978).

Family groups and non-breeding Clark's Nutcrackers occupy large home ranges in spring and summer, which are based on location of seed caches (Tomback 1998). Pine seeds can be transported up to 32.6 km (19.5 miles) for caching in home ranges (Lorenz et al. 2011). Nutcrackers have a mutualistic relationship with whitebark pine, being the primary agent of dispersal for the pines, which in turn are a major source of food for the nutcrackers throughout the year (Lanner 1996, Tomback 1998). Caches contain typically 1-15 seeds; a single nutcracker may cache as many as 35,000-98,000 pine seeds in late summer and fall. A flock of about 20 nutcrackers at 2,610 m (8565 ft) in the Pioneer Mountains in early September stored an average of 3.6 whitebark pine seeds per cache (n = 95 caches, range = 1-9 seeds) and covered each cache with earth or vegetation, effectively depositing the seeds at bill depth (Paul Hendricks, personal observation). Memory of caches is retained as long as 285 days; retrieval of caches sustains birds when cones are not available on trees. Breeding territories are much smaller than home ranges. One Montana breeding territory was 0.85 ha (2.1 acres) in size (Mewaldt 1956). Raptors are the major predators of adults and juveniles. BBS data indicate a non-significant decline in numbers of 2.2% per year in Montana from 1980-2007 and a significant increase of 1.2% per year survey-wide during the same period. Numbers of birds seen per party hour on Montana CBCs have fluctuated widely but suggest no long-term trend.

Reproductive Characteristics
Nest building has been observed in Montana from 26 February to 19 April, egg laying from 18 March to 21 April, and brood rearing from 30 March to 9 May; fledglings have been seen as early as 12 April (Pyfer 1897, Silloway 1903, Saunders 1921, Mewaldt 1956, Weydemeyer 1975). Clutch sizes reported in Montana have ranged from two to five (usually three) eggs. Nests occur in Douglas-fir or ponderosa pine, 1.8 to 24.4 m (6 to 80 ft) above ground.

No management activities specific to Clark's Nutcracker are currently occuring in Montana. Clark's Nutcracker is dependent on conifer seeds, particularly pine seeds. Loss of pines (whitebark, limber, ponderosa) to fire, disease, and bark beetle outbreaks could impact populations; management activities promoting the health of pines will benefit nutcrackers.

Threats or Limiting Factors
Loss of whitebark, limber, and ponderosa pines to disease, insect outbreaks, and fire may lead to local and widespread population declines (Tomback 1998).

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Contreras-Balderas, A. J. 1992. Status of Clark's nutcrackers on Cerro El Potosi, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Western Birds 23: 181-182.
    • Giuntoli, M. and L. R. Mewaldt. 1978. Stomach contents of Clark's nutcrackers collected in western Montana. Auk 95:595-598
    • Johnson, R. E. 1966. Alpine birds of the Little Belt Mountains, Montana. Wilson Bulletin 78:225-227.
    • Lanner, R. M. 1996. Made for each other: a symbiosis of birds and pines. Oxford University Press, New York, NY. 160 pp.
    • Lorenz, T. J., K. A. Sullivan, A. V. Bakian, and C. A. Aubry. 2011. Cache-site selection in Clark's nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana). The Auk 128(2): 237-247.
    • Mewaldt, L.R. 1956. Nesting behavior of the Clark's nutcracker. Condor 58:3-23.
    • Pattie, D.L. and N.A.M. Verbeek. 1966. Alpine birds of the Beartooth Mountains. Condor 68: 167-176.
    • Pyfer, A.M. 1897. The nesting of Clark's nutcracker. Oologist 14:100-101
    • Saunders, A. A. 1921. A distributional list of the birds of Montana. Pacific Coast Avifauna Number 14. 194 pp.
    • Silloway, P. M. 1903. Additional notes to summer birds of Flathead Lake, with special reference to Swan Lake. Bulletin of the University of Montana, Missoula. Biological Series 18(6):293-308.
    • Tomback, D.F. 1998. Clark's nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana). In: A. Poole, ed. The Birds of North America Online, Species Account Number 331. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY. Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database.
    • Weydemeyer, W. 1975. Half-century record of the breeding birds of the Fortine area, Montana: nesting data and population status. Condor 77:281-287.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-list of North American birds. 7th edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C. 829 pp.
    • Beak Consultants, Inc., Portland, OR., 1983, Wildlife. January 1983. In Stillwater Project Environmental Studies. Addendum A, Wildlife. Vol. I. Tech. Report No. 7. 1982.
    • Butts, Thomas W., Western Technology and Eng., Helena, MT., 1993, Continental Lime Indian Creek Mine, Townsend, MT. 1993 Life of Mine Wildlife Reconnaissance. June 1993. In Life-of-Mine Amendment. Continental Lime, Inc., Indian Creek Mine & Plant. Vol. 2. October 13, 1992.
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • ECON, Inc. (Ecological Consulting Service), Helena, MT., 1979, Annual wildllife report of the Colstrip Area for 1978. Proj. 195-85-A. April 6, 1979.
    • Econ, Inc., Helena, MT., 1988, Wildlife monitoring report, 1987 field season, Big Sky Mine. March 1988. In Peabody Mining and Reclamation Plan Big Sky Mine Area B. Vol. 8, cont., Tab 10 - Wildlife Resources. Appendix 10-1, 1987 Annual Wildlife Report.
    • Econ, Inc., Helena, MT., 1991, Wildlife monitoring report: 1989 field season, Big Sky Mine. March 1991.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Elliott, Joe C. and Hydrometrics, Inc., Helena, MT., 1994, Supplement to wildlife baseline investigation life-of-mine expansion plan: Regal Mine, Barretts Minerals, Inc., Madison County, Montana. August 2000. In Life-of Mine Expansion Plan: Barretts Minerals, Inc., Regal Mine, Madison County, Montana. Vol. 2. App. C: Baseline Wildlife Reconnaissance. December 1999.
    • Eng, Robert. L., 1976?, Wildlife Baseline Study [for West Fork of the Stillwater and Picket Pin drainages]
    • Farmer, Pat, and Dean Culwell, Westech, Inc. [Western Technology and Engineering], Helena, MT., 1981, Terrestrial wildlife reconnaissance. March 1981.
    • Farmer, Patrick J., and Thomas W. Butts, Western Technology & Eng., Inc., Helena, MT., 1994, McDonald Project Terrestrial Wildlife Study, November 1989 - November 1993. April 1994. In McDonald Gold Project: Wildlife & Fisheries. [#18]. Seven-up Pete Joint Venture, Lincoln, MT. Unpub. No date.
    • Farmer, Patrick. J., et al., Western Technology and Eng., Inc., Helena, MT., 1984, Montana Tunnels Project Baseline Terrestrial Wildlife Study. December 14, 1984. In Application for a Hard Rock Operating Permit, Montana Tunnels Project, Jefferson County, Montana. Vol. 3. Environmental Baseline Reports. (Centennial Minerals, Inc., Hydrometrics, 1984?)
    • Fjell, Alan K., and Brian R. Mahan., 1985, Peabody Coal Company Big Sky Mine, Rosebud County, MT. Wildlife monitoring report: 1984 field season. February 1985.
    • Humphris, Michael., 1990, Wildlife Monitoring Report. Spring Creek Coal Company 1990 Mining Annual Report. Appendix I. April 11, 1990.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young. 1999. Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service. General Technical Report RMRS-GTR-32. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, and Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ogden, UT. 72 pp.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
    • Lenard, S.J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar's Montana Bird Distribution, 6th Edition. Montana Audubon: Helena, MT, 144 pp.
    • Madge, S. and H. Burn. 1994. Crows and Jays: A guide to crows, jays, and magpies of the world. Houghton Mifflin Company, N.Y. 191 pp.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • OEA Research, Helena, MT., 1982, Beal Mine Wildlife Report. June 17, 1982.
    • Pilliod, D.S. 2002. Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana) predation on tadpoles of the Columbia Spotted frog (Rana luteiventris). Northwestern Naturalist 83(2):59-61.
    • Salt, W.R. and J.R. Salt. 1976. The birds of Alberta. Hurtig Publishers, Edmonton, Alberta. xv + 498 pp.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • Thompson, Richard W., Western Resource Dev. Corp., Boulder, CO., 1996, Wildlife baseline report for the Montana [Montanore] Project, Lincoln and Sanders counties, Montana. In Application for a Hard Rock Operating Permit and Proposed Plan of Operation, Montanore Project, Lincoln and Sanders Counties, Montana. Vol. 5. Stroiazzo, John. Noranda Minerals Corp., Libby, MT. Revised September 1996.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
    • Westech, Inc. [Western Technology and Engineering]. 1989. Reconnaissance of terrestrial wildlife resources in the Pauper's Dream project vicinity, Aug. 1988. Prepared for Hydrometrics, Inc., Helena, MT. 22 pp.
    • Western Technology & Engineering, Inc. (WESTECH)., 1991, 1991 Bull Mountains Mine No. 1 Terrestrial Wildlife Monitoring Study. In Meridian Minerals Company Bull Mountains Mine No. 1 Permit Application, Musselshell County, Montana. Vol. 7 of 14: Section 26.4.304(10): Text. Appendix 304(10)-8. January 31, 1990.
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Citation for data on this website:
Clark's Nutcracker — Nucifraga columbiana.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on April 28, 2016, from