Remarkable: the Clark’s nutcracker can remember up to 20,000 maps

This gorgeous birdy is "The Clark's Nutcracker"
This handsome black and white bird is “The Clark’s Nutcracker”

Well, it’s time for me to celebrate birds again, my favorite creatures of all the creatures that God made. I’m going to use this article from National Geographic that Mackenzie (not McKenzie) found.

It says:

It weighs only four or five ounces, its brain practically nothing, and yet, oh my God, what this little bird can do. It’s astonishing.

Around now, as we begin December, the Clark’s nutcracker has, conservatively, 5,000 (and up to 20,000) treasure maps in its head. They’re accurate, detailed, and instantly retrievable.

It’s been burying seeds since August. It’s hidden so many (one study says almost 100,000 seeds) in the forest, meadows, and tree nooks that it can now fly up, look down, and see little x’s marking those spots—here, here, not there, but here—and do this for maybe a couple of miles around. It will remember these x’s for the next nine months.

It starts in high summer, when whitebark pine trees produce seeds in their cones—ripe for plucking. Nutcrackers dash from tree to tree, inspect, and, with their sharp beaks, tear into the cones, pulling seeds out one by one. They work fast.One study clocked a nutcracker harvesting “32 seeds per minute.”

These seeds are not for eating. They’re for hiding. Like a squirrel or chipmunk, the nutcracker clumps them into pouches located, in the bird’s case, under the tongue. It’s very expandable …

The pouch “can hold an average of 92.7 plus or minus 8.9 seeds,” wrote Stephen Vander Wall and Russell Balda. Biologist Diana Tomback thinks it’s less, but one time she saw a (bigger than usual) nutcracker haul 150 seeds in its mouth. “He was a champ,” she told me.

Next, they land. Sometimes they peck little holes in the topsoil or under the leaf litter. Sometimes they leave seeds in nooks high up on trees. Most deposits have two or three seeds, so that by the time November comes around, a single bird has created 5,000 to 20,000 hiding places. They don’t stop until it gets too cold. “They are cache-aholics,” says Tomback.

When December comes—like right around now—the trees go bare and it’s time to switch from hide to seek mode. Nobody knows exactly how the birds manage this, but the best guess is that when a nutcracker digs its hole, it will notice two or three permanent objects at the site: an irregular rock, a bush, a tree stump. The objects, or markers, will be at different angles from the hiding place.

Next, they measure. This seed cache, they note, “is a certain distance from object one, a certain distance from object two, a certain distance from object three,” says Tomback. “What they’re doing is triangulating. They’re kind of taking a photograph with their minds to find these objects” using reference points.

Behold the cuteness:


I think now is the time to remind all my readers that birds have trouble finding food in the winter. Now is a good time to build or buy feeders for them, and a bag of seed. When things get very cold, it helps if they can find some comfortable trees to hide in, where there is not so much wind and snow. So, plant some trees, put up some feeders, and don’t let your cats out.

2 thoughts on “Remarkable: the Clark’s nutcracker can remember up to 20,000 maps”

  1. I bought a bag of bird seed for the first time during the winter months, thinking, “why am I doing this, all the birds are leaving and going south” Then I realized just how many birds I see and hear every winter. :) Anyway, I filled my daughter’s girl scout feeder and it is half empty. I like this article. Thanks for sharing and for the reminder.

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