This morning I awoke to a blanket of soft white icing on the mountains around my Montana cabin, sweetly pink in the first light of day. Winter has breathed its first chill sigh here, and the lodge is shutting down for the season. Golden aspens shiver on the lower slope, eager to be left alone. A jerky movement catches my eye at the tree-line. It’s a woodpecker, I think, seeing him drunkenly flit down toward me. But I’m wrong. His harsh rasping laughs give him away. This is Clark’s nutcracker, sometimes called the Woodpecker Crow. He’s a master trickster in this high pine forest. What’s his game? With a full array of well-crafted tools nested in his chisel-like bill, he’s the ultimate farmer for these north woods. His crop? Read on in today’s Biomimicry Manual to find out more!
Image by Alan Vernon
Early explorers like Lewis and Clark saw this nutcracker hammering away at the pine cones, and mistook him for a woodpecker, just like I did. But he’s actually a member of the crow family. And like a crow, he is a clever genius in the bird world. This one I’m watching will plant an entire forest in his lifetime, and the vast pine stands of the Rocky Mountain Front would not even exist without him.
One pine in particular depends on the nutcracker. The seeds of the Whitebark Pine do not disperse by wind, nor do their cones open by themselves the way other cones do. These cones are completely dependent on animals to break them open and spread their seeds. Squirrels do their part, but Clark’s Nutcracker is the real puppet-master here. The little gray bird grasps a pine cone tightly in his foot, hammers at the cone with his bill, and deftly tweezes out one pine nut after another. He doesn’t eat them right away, though.
Did you ever have a hamster as a kid? I did. His name was “Nutty,” and sometimes he’d break out of his cage and go AWOL on us. Eventually we’d find him, and as soon as we put him back in, he’d go berserk stuffing his cheeks full of seeds. Plotting his next great escape, no doubt.
The nutcracker has a seed pouch too. It’s right under his tongue, and his throat bulges out as he fills it. He can get more than one hundred pine nuts in there, each one carefully chosen for the best possible energy return-on-investment. When he can’t pack in a single one more, he flies off to hide his bounty for the winter. He’s a hoarder. He may fly for miles, looking for the perfect hiding spot. Then, he expertly swipes his beak over his chosen plot of land, plowing a little trough. He coughs up a handful of seeds into the row, then carefully covers it over with soil. He’s planting his fields, tilling, hoeing, and seeding—like any good farmer does.
This one nutcracker will hide almost 100,000 seeds in a single season. It’s way more than he needs, but it’s a good insurance against thieving squirrels, and even grizzly bears. The crazy thing is that he will remember exactly he hid them. Diana Tomback, the director of the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation, counted one bird hiding 35,000 seeds in 9,500 different caches in one season. Within nine months, he returned to almost half those spots to collect his treasure. Some were buried under several feet of snow, miles away from the tree they grew on. Considering that I can’t even remember where I put my car-keys half the time, that’s jaw-dropping to me. This bird is a savant by any standards.
But what about the seeds he doesn’t come back for? All over these woods, you can see the whitebark pines growing in clumps of three to five trees. Exactly the number planted by the nutcracker. His forgotten caches have sprouted, creating more forest, more trees, and more nuts. For his children and theirs, in an endless cycle of regeneration that benefits everyone in the community, from bears to beetles.
Because that’s how Mother Nature does business. Not just optimizing ROI, and not just creating sustainable business models, but evolving regenerative systems that create more more raw resources and more value for themselves and every member of the community than they started out with. Life creates conditions conducive to life. And by paying close attention to our fellow earthlings, we can learn to do it too!
An evolutionary biologist, writer, sustainability expert, and passionate biomimicry professional in the Biomimicry 3.8 BPro certification program, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums‘ Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation inspired by nature.
Images via WikiCommons unless otherwise noted