For the Birds Radio Program: Clark's Nutcracker in Silver Bay

Original Air Date: Oct. 25, 2004

A western corvid named for William Clark has inexplicably turned up in Silver Bay.

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Clark’s Nutcracker

Two weekends ago, a lost bird from the Rocky Mountains found its way to Silver Bay, Minnesota, up the shore a ways from Duluth, and suddenly birders from all over Minnesota were converging on a peaceful little neighborhood, combing the residential streets on foot and in their cars, looking into people’s yards trying to see it. Clark’s Nutcracker is considered an accidental species in Minnesota—it hasn’t been seen here since 1986, but there have been a few actual invasions, when at least four different birds were sighted, in 1894, 1969, and 1972, and several individuals have been sighted over the years, including one in Duluth. But since the last sighting was 18 years ago, a lot of birders needed this bird for their state list, and many more needed it for their county, year, and even millennium lists. The species has only been reported five times in Wisconsin, the most recent in 1973, so some Wisconsin birders crossed the border to see this bird.

Clark’s Nutcracker was one of the many birds Lewis and Clark found during their expedition. William Clark first saw one on August 22, 1805, as the bird fed on pine seeds—he mistook it for a woodpecker. The team didn’t collect a specimen until the following year on their return journey. Meriwether Lewis was the expedition’s naturalist, and kept journals during the expedition, but he suffered from crippling depression after their return and never wrote up for publication most of their sightings. Ornithologist Alexander Wilson, using Lewis’s journals and the specimens they brought back, wrote up the discovery and named the species after William Clark, since Clark was first to notice it. Alexander Wilson also wrote up the expedition’s discovery of Lewis’s Woodpecker.

Clark’s Nutcracker does look rather woodpecker-like, but it’s related to crows, jays, and magpies. It’s a handsome gray and black bird, it’s sleek plumage rather like a photo-negative image of a magpie, only with a much shorter tail. It’s at home in the Rocky Mountains, where abundant pines provide the bulk of its diet—fresh and stored pine seeds. The nutcracker’s behavior and annual cycle are closely tied to this diet, and several species of pine trees depend on nutcrackers for their seed dispersal.

When people spend time in the Rockies, they are often charmed by the Clark’s Nutcrackers that visit campgrounds to mooch for food. These birds are as easy to lure in for hand-feeding as Gray Jays, and like their relatives, take an assortment of foods from people, belying their reputation as the most specialized of North American Corvids.

Of course, their ability to take a wide assortment of feeder fare seems to be serving this lost bird well. Pine trees are nowhere near as abundant in Silver Bay as they are in the Rocky Mountains, so this nutcracker is visiting many neighborhood feeders and frequently feeds on the ground as well. It doesn’t seem shy or nervous around the many birders gawking at it, in keeping with its behavior in its usual habitat.

Eventually this bird will move on, but meanwhile, it’s served as the means for introducing a lot of people to Silver Bay and its friendly citizens, and we wish it a happy and prosperous visit.