When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first stumbled across the Clark’s nutcracker in 1805 along Idaho’s Salmon River, they didn’t quite know what to make of the bird.
“I saw to-day [a] bird of the woodpecker kind which fed on pine burrs, its bill and tail white the wings black,” William Clark wrote in his journal.
Lewis, the more eloquent journalist between the two, took more accurate notes—perhaps the bird should have been named “Lewis’s nutcracker”—as evidenced by his observations:
“[It] Had a loud, squawling note something like the mewing of a cat. The beak of this bird is 1-1 1/2 inches long, is proportionately large, black. … The head and neck are also proportionately large … this bird feeds on the seed of the pine and also on insects. It resides in the Rocky Mountains at all seasons of the year, and in many parts is the only bird to be found.”
Lewis was onto something there. The alpine bird—using its long, dagger-like bill like a pair of open chopsticks—will drill into the cones produced by whitebark pines, extracting fatty seeds and quickly stashing up to 100 of them in a sublingual pouch under their tongue for later burial.
According to Deb Taylor, botanist-in-residence at the Sawtooth National Forest, the whitebark pine cone is the primary food source for the Clark’s nutcracker, though it can survive off a diet of suet and other pine cones.
But the whitebark pine depends 100 percent on this bird for its own regeneration, a predicament scientists call “obligate mutualism.”
"If Clark’s [nutcrackers] did not harvest the seeds out of whitebark pine cones, there would be no seed dispersal,” Taylor said. “When the nutcracker caches seeds in places they plan on returning to, they’ll actually go overboard—that’s how whitebark pines are generated. It’s the lost or forgotten seeds that matter.”
Driving over Galena Pass on the way to Stanley, valley residents may notice whitebark pines growing on steep rock faces. They’re also clustered at the top of Bald Mountain and along other high ridges in the region.
But what they might not know is that this high-elevation species, part of the broader white pine family, is in peril. In 2011, it became a candidate species for the Endangered Species Act, though a lack of funding prevented if from officially being listed as “endangered,” as it is in Canada.
The tree’s decline is because of one main factor, according to Ketchum forester Nelson Mills.
“In Idaho and most of North America, blister rust, a fungus, arrived from Eurasia in the early part of the 20th century and began spreading among white pines. It’s a pretty prolific killer,” said Mills, who works for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and the Ketchum Ranger District. “We still have a lot of it. You can go up to Galena [Pass] and see fungal fruiting bodies on trees, killing them.”
Mills added that it’s not hard to identify a whitebark; they grow their needles in bunches of five, unlike most other pines.
But if trends continue, he said, the trees may no longer grace the top of our mountains.
“The reason whitebarks do so well at high elevations is because they’ve adapted to living in harsh conditions and heavy snow. That’s kind of their survival strategy,” he said. “But subalpine firs have recently outcompeted whitebark pine because they’ll grow in the shade of whitebarks, and will grow faster.”
Taylor said climate change may also be playing a big role in the decline of the pines.
“Anecdotally, what we’re seeing is an increase in the encroachment of subalpine fir into higher elevations, whereas in the past the climate was so intense that only whitebarks could grow to maturity there,” she said. “That’s probably due to less severe winters.”
Once infected with blister rust, a whitebark pine will develop cankers and peeling bark. Then, as its water supply is slowly shut off, the tree’s needles will turn red and begin to drop.
There’s not much hope after that point, said Dani Southard, the Northern Rockies program manager for the National Forest Foundation. But one bright spot, she said, is the willingness of local groups around the Wood River Valley to step in and help stem the rust.
At the moment, Southard estimated there are around 140 Wood River Valley residents who have joined the newly-formed Bald Mountain Community Coalition.
“The goal is to engage in local projects that, as a side effect, will restore whitebark pine stands into more inhabitable ecosystems,” she said.
One example of a community effort could be a mass-planting of whitebark seedlings, something previously orchestrated in the Deer Creek drainage near Hailey.
“Bald Mountain is a really relevant area in Ketchum and Sun Valley, so we’ve been facilitating some good community dialogue about solutions to improve forest health,” Southard said.
For her, working to save the whitebark pine comes from a deep-seated respect for the species.
“There are some whitebark pines in the Sawtooths and Boulder-White Cloud Mountains in central Idaho that are thought to be some of the oldest in the world,” she said. “These trees can live over 1,000 years. Whitebarks are such an iconic, important species, and when you see their decline happening so close to home, it can really open eyes.”
A feathered servant
With gray plumage that often takes on a purplish sheen in low light—and a highly nuanced vocabulary consisting of gull-like shrieks and trilling—the Clark’s nutcracker has long fascinated birdwatchers.
According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology researcher Taza Schaming, the large-bodied bird is a fast learner, similar to its corvid cousins, and has a memory of at least 290 days.
But unlike its magpie and crow relatives, the behavior and diet of the Clark’s nutcracker is intricately tied to the cycle of the whitebark pine.
“In a year’s time, a single nutcracker can hide over 100,000 whitebark pine seeds,” Schaming said.
“I’ve seen nutcrackers dig down through over a foot of snow, at an angle, just to find these seeds. In the spring, I’ll often watch them hopping along the snowline, retrieving their caches.”
Much of the birds’ traits are built with their alpine habitat in mind, Schaming said.
“Folks have actually done a lot of research on these guys and looked pretty in-depth at their spacial memory. What they’ve found is that the birds will triangulate the location of their caches using mountain peaks and valleys,” she said.
That makes a lot of sense: With up to 10 feet of snow in Idaho, it’d be too hard to recover food using small rocks or trees as memory devices. And the nutcracker’s long-term memory makes sense, too, because they need to remember where the seeds are during long winters.
In spite of their specialized diet, Schaming said the Clark’s nutcracker has proven to adapt well to backyard suet setups and to feast on other pine cones in years of low whitebark cone crop. Some even take well to hand-feeding.
Mills said he doesn’t recommend that people leave out suet, because it may attract bears and encourage the nutcrackers to move away from their natural food source.
But Schaming—who has dedicated over a decade of her career to studying the Clark’s nutcracker in the longest-ever study in the U.S.—said she has no evidence yet to support that claim.
Suet is just one bait she’ll use to attract the birds for research purposes in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. For years, she’s fit nutcrackers with tiny, radio-transmitter “backpacks” sewn out of Teflon that emit signals for up to 30 miles. She’s also satellite-tracked dozens of the birds as they’ve flown over state lines, some going as far as Utah.
One of the more concerning observations Schaming has made was when many birds stopped breeding in 2011, a year when few whitebark pines were producing cones.
She wasn’t as worried about the low cone crop—most if not all conifer species are masting, meaning they don’t put out the same number of seeds every year. It was the rapidly falling number of Clark’s nutcracker sightings in Glacier National Park in Montana and the Cascades in Washington that were more troublesome.
“My hypothesis is that these reduced sightings are directly correlated with the loss of the whitebark pine, as fewer pines lead to fewer nutcrackers—which in turn leads to fewer pines,” she said.
To further investigate her hypothesis and determine whether the Clark’s population is truly in decline, Schaming hopes to secure funding to tag more birds and put out acoustic monitors this coming spring.
Taylor is hopeful for more funding, too.
“Right now, Sawtooth [National Recreational Area] is doing all it can to protect stand health, and that will not change. It would be ideal if the whitebark pine is listed as an endangered species so we could obtain more federal funding, but in the meantime, we’re doing all we can to protect it,” she said.