Clark’s nutcrackers are pivotal players in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, dispersing whitebark pine seeds and enabling the trees to reproduce and regain their population amid a decline. The whitebark pine trees are critical to the ecosystem because of their role in feeding wildlife and stabilizing the water supply. In light of the severe decline of whitebark pine trees, tracking the movement of the nutcrackers will yield crucial findings which will help managers ensure persistence of the Clark’s nutcrackers, whitebark pine and the nutcrackers’ important seed dispersal function.
Please help support this first-ever satellite tracking of Clark’s nutcrackers by giving to this project, which will cover the satellite transmitter costs for one full year. Read on for more information!
What makes Clark’s nutcrackers so special?
Clark’s nutcrackers play an important role in shaping the landscape of the western U.S. They cache, or hide, up to 100,000 seeds per bird per year, storing food to eat over the winter. The seeds they don’t eat are able to grow into new trees. They move seeds up to 20 miles! This is further than wind, rodents and every other seed dispersing bird in the U.S. They also move seeds up and down in altitude and elevation, and into recently disturbed areas (places where seeds might not be able to get to otherwise). Nutcrackers disperse seeds of at least a dozen conifer species.
The conservation issue
Clark’s nutcrackers have a particularly fascinating relationship with whitebark pine. Virtually 100% of these trees sprout from nutcracker seed caches. Whitebark pine provides rich, fatty seeds for wildlife, and they help delay snowmelt which stabilizes the - often precarious - water supply out west.
Whitebark pine is declining rapidly range-wide due to disease and recent outbreaks of mountain pine beetles. (Imagine standing on top of a mountain, and seeing 98% of the trees dead or dying.) It is already listed as an endangered species in Canada and is considered warranted for protection under the Endangered Species Act in the U.S.
This is a vicious cycle: fewer whitebark pines lead to fewer seeds to cache, which leads to fewer nutcrackers. Fewer nutcrackers cache fewer seeds, which leads to fewer whitebark pines growing.
Since 2009, Taza Schaming has been studying Clark’s nutcrackers to provide forest managers with the information they need to best protect these incredible birds, and the awe-inspiring whitebark pine ecosystems which depend on them. She works in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, where whitebark pines are disappearing at an unbelievable pace, but nutcrackers are still common. Using techniques that can only be described as "extreme field biology", Taza has investigated nutcracker habitat selection and foraging ecology, and has observed nutcracker behavior through more than 1,000 days in the field.
"It was pretty crazy to attach a $3,500 backpack to a bird, then watch it fly away."
This past year, Taza has taken her project to a whole new level. She attached satellite transmitters to seven Clark’s nutcrackers in fall 2014. Before this new technology it could take days of hiking to find one bird! Now, Taza can go online anytime and see exactly where the birds are moving, collecting 1,000’s of data points.
No one has ever tracked Clark’s nutcrackers via satellite before. We know they move around a lot within a region but “a lot” is pretty subjective. Deeper insight into nutcracker movements will help us better predict the impacts of current habitat loss on these birds, AND help us figure out how to help protect them.
Why does this matter?
Managers are working hard to save whitebark pine trees. They assume that once we do our part, the Clark’s nutcrackers will take back over. Taza is evaluating what nutcrackers need, so that the birds will still be here to take back over.
Finding out exactly where nutcrackers go when the cone crop is low or depleted in a given year is particularly crucial to managing entire landscapes. Clark’s nutcrackers may also regularly move hundreds or thousands of miles in search of food, instead of emigrating only when cone crops are low. Such a dependence on large tracts of forests in widely separated areas would make them especially vulnerable to becoming endangered. Like passenger pigeons, a drastic decline in these populations could go undetected due to the large fluctuations in occupancy and abundance at particular sites. Large declines of nutcrackers, important conifer seed dispersers, would have considerable consequences on the seed dispersal potential of many tree species.
How YOU can help!
Continuing to track the Clark’s nutcrackers for another year is critical to making the most solid recommendations. Rarely can one trust that one year of data isn’t an anomaly. In addition, we need to see how behavior changes in years with different whitebark pine cone crops and find out if the birds that traveled to Montana and Utah come back.
This is new technology, and it’s still expensive. We can’t wait for costs to come down. That may take years or more likely decades, and at that point it might be too late. Each transmitter costs $3,500 plus $850/year/bird for satellite usage. That breaks down to about $70/month or $6,000 to fund the satellite usage for another year for the seven birds already fitted with transmitters.
This is the beginning of something big! After two years, Taza will have enough data to publish her results in an academic journal. As a thank you to her supporters, Taza plans to share results through public talks and a follow-up video on YouTube. Taza hopes these initial results can be used as leverage to apply for future grants, enabling her to attach transmitters to nutcrackers throughout the entire western U.S.
Help protect the iconic whitebark pine, this fascinating bird, and their important seed dispersal function. Thank you for your support!
Initial funding for the satellite tracking comes from the Meg and Bert Raynes Wildlife Fund, the Athena Fund of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Wyoming Wildlife-The Foundation, and Microwave Telemetry.