by Vlad Kovalenko, Glacier National Park
Nest finding is a fun and elusive activity. It is often difficult enough to spot a bird singing in a tree or shrub, let alone to discover where it rears its young. Nesting is a fundamentally critical and fragile part of the life histories of most birds, so it is no accident that nests are hard to find. One species of particular interest in our neck of the woods is this month’s Bird of the Month: the Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana).
This seed hoarder and white pine mutualist is a crucial part of our subalpine and tree line ecosystems, yet little is known about our local nutcracker population. Researchers in Glacier National Park are actively investigating the nutcrackers in our area to answer important questions related to the sustainability of the nutcracker-whitebark mutualism. Due to the loss of so many of our region’s whitebark, we are unsure of whether the mutualism has broken down. One sure sign that it continues to thrive is the presence of breeding birds.
Evidence from a study of the Greater Yellowstone population suggests that Clark’s nutcrackers do not breed in years following low whitebark cone production. This may be attributed to the birds’ knowledge that they did not cache enough seeds to nourish themselves and their young. This translates not only to fewer whitebark seeds being planted, but also to fewer birds available to disperse seeds down the road.
Dr. Taza Schaming, an ecologist and Clark’s nutcracker researcher, is seeking help in locating nutcracker nests for her Nutcracker Ecosystem Project and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Clark’s Nutcracker/Whitebark Pine Ecosystem initiative. Nest sightings will assist studies of the role of nutcrackers in conifer ecosystems, the effects of climate change on the birds and coniferous forests, and educational efforts to elevate awareness. Additionally, the discovery of nests in our area will give insights as to whether our dwindling whitebark populations are still viable. These results carry important implications as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers listing the species as “Threatened.”
Very few nutcracker nests have ever been documented, so any new nest information is wonderfully helpful. Nests are made of twigs or sticks and are round, approximately eight to 12 inches wide, four to nine inches deep, and found eight to 60 feet off the ground, primarily in conifers. Nests can be found in live or dead trees, and dense or open stands of trees. Nest building tends to begin in late-February/early-March (but may be earlier or later depending on the location and year) and is the most easily observable sign of nesting/breeding. Nestlings should all have fledged by mid-June.
The best way to find a nest is to follow birds carrying sticks and twigs to their intended nesting sites. Additionally, the presence of fledglings (no white on face, shorter tail) is an indicator of a nearby nest. Fledglings are usually found with adults nearby, and can be heard begging for food with whiny, repeating vocalizations.
If you spot Clark’s nutcrackers nesting, please send GPS point and/or other location information, such as tree species and height of nest in the tree, as well as nest status (building, eggs, nestlings), date located, and any other details to firstname.lastname@example.org.