Foam Lake Birding No. 113


No. 113

Our feeders had been busy until a Northern Shrike showed up in our backyard on at least two different days (the times that we saw it). On its second visit the shrike managed to surprise a male House Sparrow at the sunflower feeder. We thought the sparrow was doomed but it was smart enough to realize that flight was too dangerous so it just stayed absolutely motionless until the shrike left. For about fifteen minutes or so we watched the shrike looking for something to eat and, only three or four metres away, the sparrow trying to look invisible. Fortunately for the sparrow it blended in with the feeder so well that the shrike did not notice it. The shrike then flew off to our neighbour's place, probably to visit her feeders, while the sparrow made a quick getaway.

Seeing the shrike reminded me of another similarly coloured, but unrelated, bird of the Rocky Mountains - the Clark's Nutcracker. Like the Northern Shrike the robin sized Clark's Nutcracker is a grey bird with black wings and tail marked with white. The markings are slightly different but the easiest way to tell them apart is by the facial markings. The shrike has a racoon-like black mask while the nutcracker has a plain grey face. Other than colouration the birds are completely different. For starters, the nutcracker belongs to the corvid (crow) family while the shrike is in a family of its own (see Article No. 26). Like all corvids the Clark's Nutcracker likes to scavenge and benefits from human presence.

There are many people from around here who, from time to time, visit the Rocky Mountains, especially Banff and Jasper Parks. In these places the Clark's Nutcracker is plentiful, tame and always on the lookout for some tasty morsel that may be offered or carelessly dropped.

Its primary food sources are the seeds of pine trees with Pinyon Pine (yes, the expensive stuff that we buy in stores) being especially favoured. If there is a shortage of pine seeds (pine nuts) the nutcracker, like its cousin the Blue Jay, chisels away with its bill at hazel nuts exposing the meat inside which it then eats. In the fall the nutcracker carries seeds in its cheek pouches and stores them in many different places to be used over winter when food is scarce. It stores far more than it needs thus allowing for losses to theft by other animals and to simple forgetfulness. The latter gives rise to new trees sprouting.

Its method of eating nuts gave it the name of nutcracker. Since there is only one nutcracker in North America this one word name should have sufficed, but a first name of "Clark's" was added in honour of William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition that took place in the US in the early 1850s. Sometimes locals refer to it as Clark's Crow.

This week's picture was taken at Banff National Park in the summer of 2009. Since Cark's Nutcrackers are not migratory they can be seen any time of the year although they do drop to lower elevations for the winter. For anybody who has been to Europe Clark's Nutcrackers are very similar in many respects to the all-black Jackdaws seen in city parks there.

We received a call that a Great Horned Owl had landed on the roof of the hotel down town, unfortunately, before we got there it had taken off. Who knows, maybe there will be a next time.