Clark's Nutcracker - Nucifraga columbiana
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).
For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.
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.
Western Hemisphere Range
eBird Occurrence Map
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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).
Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations:
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Map Help and Descriptions
(direct evidence "B")
(indirect evidence "b")
No evidence of Breeding
(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 (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for
vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
- 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 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
- Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
- Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
- 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 listed as associated with 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 listed as 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.
Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific 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 assignment of common versus occasional association.
If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.
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: http://mtnhp.org/requests/default.asp
) 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.
- 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. 2012. Mammals of Montana. Second edition. Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana. 429 pp.
- 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.
- Commonly Associated with these Ecological Systems
Forest and Woodland Systems
Recently Disturbed or Modified
Shrubland, Steppe and Savanna Systems
Wetland and Riparian Systems
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.
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.
- Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
- 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: With notes on the migration and nesting of the better known species. Pacific Coast Avifauna No. 14.
- Silloway, P. M. 1903. Additional notes to summer birds of Flathead Lake, with special reference to Swan Lake. Bulletin of the University of Montana No. 18, Biological Series No. 6. 293-308 p.
- Tomback, D.F. 1998. Clark's nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana). Species Account Number 331. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). 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
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- 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.
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