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Taza Schaming / photo credit Jada Schaming

Clark's nutcrackers, pivotal players in Washington’s mountain habits

A Wenatchee River Institute Red Barn Event in Leavenworth

Posted on Mar 7, 2020
Clark’s nutcrackers and whitebark pines have a fascinating relationship. The trees provide fatty seeds with more calories per pound than chocolate, and the birds plant the seeds by caching them for winter calories. A single bird may bury up to 98,000 seeds in a year! Learn more about this interspecies relationship from ornithologist Taza Schaming by attending Wenatchee River Institute’s (WRI) Red Barn Event on Wed., Apr. 15 at 7 PM, 347 Division St. in Leavenworth.

Taza Schaming / photo credit Jada Schaming

“Everything is connected. Not only are Clark's nutcracker and whitebark pine intimately intertwined because the trees depend completely on nutcrackers for dispersal of seeds, but whitebark pine is a keystone and foundation species impacting hundreds of other species,” said Schaming. “Fewer nutcrackers lead to fewer cached seeds, which could lead to even fewer whitebark pines,” she continued.

The decline of whitebark pine will likely have a cascading effect on numerous species and watersheds. These trees live in remote, high elevation, often road-less areas and are dying because of fire suppression policies over the last century. Additionally, climate changes from human activities –leading to warming temperatures– give way to nonnative white pine blister rust and outbreaks of voracious mountain pine beetles.

Nutcrackers travel over large areas dispersing the seeds of more than a dozen other conifers along the way, with leftovers from their winter caches growing into new trees. Schaming followed nutcrackers for days at a time and noticed they each had very different personalities. Said Schaming, “Some were very shy and some would join you for lunch. I had never thought about that aspect and really got to know birds up close and personal. Whenever I lost the birds (while radio-tracking) I just had to keep hiking higher!”

Clarks Nutcracker / photo credit Emily Jones

Limited information has been collected about Clark's nutcracker populations and behavior, and that's where Schaming comes in. Beginning in 2009 as a Ph.D. student at Cornell University, and continuing as a research associate with Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, Schaming has been investigating the resilience of whitepine’s and the nutcracker’s obligate mutualism (wherein one organism cannot survive without the other). The ultimate goal of this research is to suggest management strategies ensuring the persistence of Clark’s nutcrackers and their important seed dispersal function.

Wanting to combine her passions for conservation ornithology, snowboarding, and working in mountain habitats, Taza found a fascinating species she could tie to conservation issues. She began working in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem monitoring nests, trapping, surveying, and tracking Clark’s nutcrackers to study their movement, habitat selection, and social behavior. In 2018, she expanded into Washington's Cascades to focus on evaluating habitat use and selection, seed dispersal, and long-distance emigration patterns to help inform whitebark pine management plans and identify areas for pine conservation and restoration. In spring 2020, Taza will be satellite-tagging nutcrackers and working with Central WA University students to begin a community science nutcracker monitoring project.

Doors open at 6:30 PM for community social and with local beer and wine available for purchase. This is a free event with donations gratefully accepted to benefit WRI youth and adult programs. Information: Rebecca Ryan (509)548-0181, [email protected]
Visit http://wenatcheeriverinstitute.org

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