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I was hunting elk and deer, but found myself in the midst of a wilderness aviary

Photos: Bill Schiess |

“If you don’t like the weather in Idaho, wait a few minutes and it will change.”

That’s how the saying goes, and on a recent outing to the Moody area east of Rexburg the weather was not the only thing changing.

While sitting under a large fir tree loaded with cones, I noticed a vast array of birds — first robins and Townsend’s solitaires visiting in nearby aspens as a light misty rain fell. As the sun popped out, a flock of Cedar waxwings arrived at a nearby juniper to feed on the thousands of meaty nugget berries covering that tree. After a brief snow squall, a mixed flock of Clark’s nutcrackers and a few Red crossbills mixed with them came to visit “my” tree.

I was hunting elk and deer, but found myself in the midst of a wilderness aviary. It had been a few years since I had seen flocks of nutcrackers and more than a few since I had seen flocks of crossbills feeding in the mountains. Occasionally, I see one or two during the summer, but not the numbers that I had the opportunity to watch, study and enjoy.

The “camp robbers,” as the nutcrackers are also known, were using their strong bills to grasp a cone near the end of a branch and twist it back and forth until they broke it off. After collecting the cone, they would move to the interior of the tree, find a crook in a branch, wedge the cone there with the stem down and begin hammering it. After loosening the sections of the cone, they would use their strong pointed bill to pry open the section wide enough to reach the seeds. They resembled mini-jackhammers at work to get to their brunch.

Nutcrackers have a love-affair with conifer trees. They are hoarders. They not only eat the seeds, but they also are responsible for planting them. This is called mutualism, were two or more species depend on each other for their survival. It is believed that many forests across the western United States would not survive without the nutcrackers.

As the seeds were harvested one by one, they were stored in a pocket under the bird’s tongue, where up to 80 seeds can be stored to be deposited in a cache for future use. When a bird’s cheeks are full, sometimes they will break off an extra cone and fly away where they, too, deposit their goodies.

A study by Diana Tomback of the University of Colorado documented a bird caching 35,000 seeds at over 9,000 sites. Even though they can recall the exact sites by using landmarks, many of these deposits become plantings of conifer forests.

This member of the jay family feeds on all evergreens with wingless seeds like Douglas fir, Ponderosa and White Bark pine that need them to propagate new growth. These cousins of the crow are not true migrators. They will migrate up and down mountains as their food sources become available. Other seeds, insects, berries, dead animals and even food left behind by humans are fare for these noisy birds. Many of these “camp robbers” harass campers in the national parks and forests.

As I watched the nutcrackers do their activities, the crossbills were doing the same. They were a loose group, mainly watching their larger friends from nearby aspens, while occasionally joining them for a snack. But the crossbills are another story — hopefully.

Looks like the weather is going to give us another morning watching the wildlife from the protection of large fir trees.


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