The Nutcrackers

The unlikely hero of the forest—at least, if you’re a pine tree—is an unassuming bird called Clark’s Nutcracker. A member of the supersmart corvid family, which also includes crows, magpies and jays, the Nutcracker has possibly the sharpest memory of all.

Each November, over a period of three weeks, an individual Nutcracker stores between 10,000 and 30,000 seeds—sometimes up to 98,000—across a 200 square mile radius. Six months later, it returns to retrieve those seeds.  It remembers, without hesitation (or GPS) the precise location of each and every seed, give or take a thousand. Doesn’t matter if there’s three feet of snow over the stored supply, they remember.

Of course, sometimes the squirrels have gotten to a cache or two first. That’s why the Nutcracker stores so many seeds, to guard against theft and the occasional lapse of memory.

How is this heroism? Pine trees produce seeds that can’t travel on their own; they must be moved by animals—that is, if they’re not eaten by them first. Many animals help to move the seeds across a wide area (thus helping to fill in open spaces or rebuild forests after fires), but none is quite as equipped for high-volume distribution as the Nutcracker.

story © Sarah Chauncey         image © Francis Tremblay