There are two birds that seem to be ubiquitous along the John Muir Trail: the bright blue Stellar’s Jay, and the Clark’s Nutcracker. Both are good sized birds—the jay a bit larger than a robin and the nutcracker almost the size of a crow.
The Clark’s Nutcracker (named for the Clark of Lewis & Clark fame) can be found from British Columbia all the way south to Baja California. Not all have precisely the same appearance, but, like an artfully composed Ansel Adams print, all are a pleasing mix of blacks, whites, and grays.
They build their nests in pine trees, where the female lays two-to-four eggs. For a little more than two weeks, both the male and female incubate those eggs. About three weeks after hatching the kids are ready to fly.
Once fledged, the young Nutcrackers, with their parents as tutors, learn one of the more unusual and complicated feeding routines ever discovered.
Although the birds are omnivores, willing to eat insects, plants, and even, when presented, carrion, their primary food source is the seeds from pine trees. Each adult bird is capable of collecting nearly 100,000 seeds each season. They use their strong beaks to pry the seeds out of the pine cones and then carry them to collection points in pouches they have under their tongues.
Those collection points are underground—with each bird creating thousands of them.
What is truly remarkable is this: once the birds have buried the seeds, they are able to find them again, even months later, and even if they are under a few feet of snow.
So, the next time you see a Clark’s Nutcracker sitting in a pine tree, remember that you’re looking at much more than just a pretty bird.
Good hiking, Ray