Clark’s Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana)

Copyright © 2012 Corvid Corner. All rights reserved.
  A member of the corvidae family, Clark's Nutcracker is a lovely bird slightly smaller than the Spotted Nutcracker. It eats mostly seeds from the pine tree. And it has a pouch in the floor of it's mouth in front of its tongue (a sublingual pouch -- See below) which can hold up to 95 pinyon pine seeds (depending on the seed this number can vary from 50 to 150).
Sublingual pouch
  To put this in perspective, 95 Pinyon pine seeds weigh up to 13% of the total weight of the bird!! How neat is that? They have a pouch in their mouth where they can store and carry almost 15% of their own weight! The Clark's Nutcracker also has a "long, heavy, sharp bill... used for hacking open green, closed cones, many of which are covered with pitch. Nutcrackers can open the green cones of most of the pines. The bill is also used to thrust seeds into the substrate with strong japes of the head and neck. As their name implies, nutcrackers can open thick-hulled pine seeds by crushing them in their bills."1 Most jays must wait for the cones to open naturally, but the Clark's nutcracker (and the pinyon jay) are able to open the tightly closed green cones. Lucky for them, they don't have to wait for a good seed.
In a year with a heavy cone crop a single nutcracker can cache between 22,000 and 33,000 seeds in over 7,000 individual cache sites (Vander Wall & Balda, 1977). Birds may place between one and 14 seeds per cache. Birds continue caching until the crop is depleted or snow covers the caching areas (Vander Wall & Balda, 1977). Possibly, birds curtail caching after snow remains on the ground because to cache in these conditions would reveal cache location by their foot prints left in the snow.2
Copyright © 2012 Corvid Corner. All rights reserved.
  The Clark's Nutcracker possesses a number of abilities and physical attributes that help them thrive. They have excellent spatial memory abilities which allow these clever corvids to "learn and generalize geometric rules about the placement of landmarks." They use the landscape and even the sun (as a compass) to help them cache seeds. Their strong beaks help them crack open seeds, hence their name. Their long, pointed wings help them for strong flight to great distances. They can cache up to 22 km (a little over 13 and a half miles!). The Clark's Nutcracker "can carry seeds 1,900 m up the side of the Peaks."3 They use 'bill-clicking' which is the rapid opening and closing of the mandibles, to help determine if the seed is full as well as determine the thickness of the seed coat which saves time when seeds are abundant in the spring and summer.
Copyright © 2012 Corvid Corner. All rights reserved.
  So intelligent are they, the Clark's Nutcracker can discern between pinyon pine seeds that have nut meet and those that are empty just by observing the color of the shell. WOW! Corvids are so intelligent!   Sources:
  1. http://www.pigeon.psy.tufts.edu/asc/Balda/ []
  2. Balda, Russell P. and Kamil, Alan C. Linking Life Zones, Life History Traits, Ecology, and Spatial Cognition in Four Allopatric Southwestern Seed Caching Corvids []
  3. Balda and Kamil []

Jays poem

Jays by Unknown "I know an old man, His name is Jay, He wears a blue coat, And a hat of gray. He has a nice nest High up in a tree, Where sits his dear mate Content as can be. There are four blue eggs In the little brown nest, Which will soon be baby birds Blue, like the rest."

Corvids and Cake

This Corvid family of birds is inspirational. They are used as symbols, mascots, even cake decorations! Here are some of the pictures I found involving corvids and cake.
Eating Crow Cake by Wild Cakes (Photo Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/itsyourdaycakes/53498212/)
 
Old Crow Cake (Photo Source: http://cakecentral.com/modules.php?name=gallery&file=displayimage&pid=260713)
Magpie Cake Topper by Kellis Cake (Photo Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/23149873@N08/3841866541/)
Painting of a magpie eating cake (Photo Source: http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/thumbnail/162760/1/Magpie-Eating-Cake.jpg)
Blue Jay Wedding Cake (Photo Source: http://allegrophotography.com/blog/2009/02/19/wedding-cakes-konditor-meister-boston-ma/)
Blue Jay cake by The Evil Plankton (Photo Source: http://fc04.deviantart.net/fs40/f/2009/025/c/1/Blue_jay_cake_by_The_EvIl_Plankton.jpg)
Blue Jay Cake by Cake Coquette (Photo Source: http://blog.cakecoquette.com/)

Azure-hooded Jay

Azure-hooded Jay Originally uploaded by hanszw
The Azure-hooded Jay, Cyanolyca cucullata, is a species of bird in the Corvidae family. It is found in Middle America. Its natural habitat is subtropical or tropical moist montane forest. This species is known to have four subspecies. It is 11 to 12 inches (28 to 30 cm) in length and is dark blue with a black head and upper chest. The back of the head and neck are sky blue with a white border. The jays travel in groups of two to ten individuals and may join mixed-species flocks. It are a secretive species and therefore difficult to observe in the wild. As an omnivore, this jay eats berries, seeds, and small, dead animals. Females lay three to four eggs, and the young fledge after twenty days. This species is listed as Least Concern, meaning it is not threatened with extinction. Taxonomy The species was first described by the American ornithologist Robert Ridgway in 1885. Its specific epithet, cucullata, is the Latin word for "hooded". Its closest relative is the Beautiful Jay (C. pulchra) of Colombia and Ecuador; in his 1934 study, Hellmayr treated these species as conspecific. Phylogenetic analysis published in 2009 confirmed the close relationship between the two species; Bonaccorso speculates that the geographic (and subsequent genetic) separation between these species and others in the Cyanolyca genus may have been initiated by the formation of the Río Cauca Valley in western Colombia. The Azure-hooded Jay has four subspecies. Cyanolyca cucullata mitrata is found in eastern Mexico, from San Luis Potosí to north central Oaxaca. This subspecies was initially treated as a separate species by Ridgway, but it was later merged into the Azure-hooded Jay. C. c. guatemalae ranges from southern Mexico in Chiapas to central Guatemala. C. c. hondurensis resides in western Honduras. C. c. cucullata, the nominate subspecies, is found in Costa Rica and western Panama. Description The Azure-hooded Jay ranges in length from 11 to 12 inches (28 to 30 cm), and it tends to weigh 35.2 ounces (1,000 g). Its large size and frame help the bird manage the large amount of flying it does. The adult is dark blue with black on the head and upper chest, while the rear of the crown and nape, or back of the neck, are sky blue with a white border. The legs and bill are black and the eyes are dark red. Both sexes are similar in appearance. Juveniles are duller than adults and their sky blue hood does not possess the white bordering. Its voice has been described as a loud and bright eihnk-eihnk that is typically repeated four to five times. It is also known to repeat a nasal ehr-ehn or eh’enk noise twice and give off a low, gruff, hard cheh-r. The alarm and flock-social calls of this species, characterized as a reek! sound, are "nasal, querulous, and upwardly or double inflected." Distribution and habitat This species is known from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, southeastern Mexico, and western Panama. It lives in humid evergreen forests that are sometimes interspersed with pine trees. It can be found at the edges of these forests typically in the middle and higher levels within these trees. It is also normally found only where cloud forest is uninterrupted. Ecology and behavior This corvid is known to join mixed-species flocks with other species including Unicolored Jays and Emerald Toucanets. It is also known to travel in groups with two to ten other Azure-hooded Jays. It is a skulking and secretive species, rarely coming out into the open. Because of this habit, the bird is extremely difficult to observe in the wild and not much is known about its ecology. Mates are known to preen each other, a process which entails one bird bending over in front of the other and tugging on its throat feathers. The feathers of the crown are often moving swiftly, and it is believed that the condition of a mate can be determined by this movement. Like other jays, this species is likely extremely intelligent. Similar species are known to use ants to keep their feathers clean, store seeds and nuts for later consumption, and use their toes to hold food. However, due to its secretive nature, these characteristics have not yet been observed in the species. The bird's bright plumage makes it easy for predators to find this species. Whenever the jay feels threatened, it gives off a warning alarm call. Diet The Azure-hooded Jay is omnivorous, eating berries, seeds, and small, dead animals. This species has been known to steal and eat bait from traps set for small mammals. The bird tends to forage in the forest canopy. Reproduction The jay’s nest is typically built 16.4 to 23 feet (5 to 7 m) above the ground next to a tree trunk. The base of the Azure-hooded Jay's first studied nest was coarsely made out of twigs that were 0.08 to 0.12 inches (2 to 3 mm) long. That nest was about 4.3 inches (11 cm) wide inside and 7.4 to 13 inches (19 to 33 cm) wide overall depending on the length of the exterior twigs. The nest is 2 inches (5 cm) deep and has an interior constructed with woven thin fibrils and twigs, and no feathers or other softening devices are used in the nest’s construction. In addition to building its own nest, this jay is known to reuse old, abandoned nests made by other species. Three to four eggs are normally laid. The young are typically raised in the nest between April and June and they take at least 20 days to fledge. Both parents care for the young and feed them a variety of insects, including katydids. After the young fledge, they stay close to their parents. Conservation This jay is treated as a species of Least Concern, or not threatened with extinction, by BirdLife International due to its large geographical range of about 42,500 square miles (110,000 km2), population which, while unsurveyed, is believed to be above 10,000 individuals, and lack of a 30% population decline over the last ten years. However, the Azure-hooded Jay is uncommon in some parts of its range. It is also believed that deforestation may have an effect on this bird. Relationship with humans Although this species has not been observed doing this, closely related jays are known to destroy and eat human-planted crops such as orchards, cane, pineapples, and potatoes. The Azure-hooded Jay has appeared on one stamp in Mexico in 1996.

Corvid Abnormalities

Abnormalities can be found in all life forms--corvids included. Here are some interesting photos I found of corvids with two abnormalities deformed beaks and partial albino-ism--leucistic or albino corvids.
crows_partially_albino
Leucistic (partially-albino) crow
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Albino Steller's Jay
Albino Steller's Jay
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Leucistic (partially-albino) magpie (Photo from Messybeast.com)
Leucistic (partially-albino) magpie (Photo from Messybeast.com)
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Leucistic (partially-albino) Jackdaw (Photo Source: Surfbirds.com)
Leucistic (partially-albino) Jackdaw (Photo Source: Surfbirds.com)
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x_bill_raven_308
Raven with a deformed bill
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Crow with deformed beak
Crow with deformed beak
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Crow with deformed beak
Crow with deformed beak
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Steller's Jay with deformed beak
Steller's Jay with deformed beak
--- Read about THE MYSTERY OF THE LONG-BEAK SYNDROME here. Or you can read Passerines with Deformed Bills by Julie A. Craves (an article) here. There seems to be a high concentration of birds with deformed beaks in the Pacific Northwest--I wonder why.

How to keep Crows and Jays away from your bird feeders

We know many people do not share our appreciation for crows and jays. They can often been seen as pests or bullies, particulary when it comes to backyard bird feeders. If you want to keep the crows and Jays away from your bird feeders, protecting your little birdies, you can throw out whole pieces of bread (away from the feeders), cereal flakes or corn chips. These big pieces of food are edible for all birds but intimidate most of the smaller birds. The smaller birds prefer the seeds and smaller nuts. While the crows and jays can hardly resist the bigger food sources thrown towards them. This will ensure that all the birds are fed and safer. Another way to entice the bigger birds with the bread is to spread suet on it --- they will be unable to resist this open-faced energy sandwich. Be sure not to throw out moldy bread. This can harm the birds and we DO NOT advocate harming any birds---particularly our beloved corvids. We also do not recommend putting bread out while it is raining because birds don't like soggy bread anymore than we do. The big birds and small birds can peacefully coexist in your yard or porch, if you just take a few extra steps. =)

Some tunes to crow about…

Well, being a corvid lover and all...I decided I would gather up some music about the intelligent birds. Some of the songs are about the bird, some are named after the bird, some liken love or life after the birds. All of them are worth listening to---so sit back, push play and enjoy. The music player is in the upper left corner. If you have a song about crows, ravens, jays or any corvid you would like to share, please feel free to contact us below. A detailed play list is coming soon---so you can get these songs too.

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Corvid cognition

Copyright © 2005 Elsevier Ltd All rights reserved. Nicola Clayton and Nathan Emery
aDepartment of Experimental Psychology and Sub-department of Animal Behaviour, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
Available online 7 February 2005.

Article Outline

What is a corvid? There are just over 120 species of corvids, a family of songbirds that includes the crows, ravens, rooks and jackdaws, as well as the more colourful jays, magpies and nutcrackers. Although belonging to the same order as nightingales and other birds with melodious songs (Oscines), corvids tend to be identified by their raucous calls. Little is known about corvid songs, perhaps because they are surprisingly quiet. Corvids can be found throughout the globe, except for the southern most tip of South America and the polar ice caps. In Britain, many of the common species, such as magpies and crows, steal other birds' eggs and raid agricultural crops. They are therefore treated with disdain by many birdwatchers and farmers. Why study intelligence in crows? Corvids have not always had such a bad press. Native Americans believed that a raven had created the earth; the Norse god, Odin, consulted two ravens Hugin (Thought) and Munin (Memory) for their wisdom; and Aesop cast corvids as the smart protagonists in many of his fables. Along with their reputation in folklore as the wisest of animals, corvids have the largest brains for their body size of any bird. Perhaps most surprisingly, the crow brain is the same relative size as the chimpanzee brain. Other aspects of corvid biology also give us clues to their intelligence. In the wild, young corvids have an extensive developmental period before they become independent from their parents. This allows them more opportunities to learn the essential skills for later life. Many corvids also live in complex social groups. For example, in the cooperatively breeding Florida scrub-jay, several closely related family members share the responsibility of raising the young with the parents. Furthermore, rooks congregate in large colonies, where juveniles associate with many non-relatives as well as kin. In both cases, this long developmental period provides increased opportunities for learning from many different group members. Perhaps it is not surprising then that many corvids are also renowned for their innovative feeding skills. For example, Japanese crows in Sendai City have learned to crack nuts safely by dropping them onto pedestrian crossings and waiting until the traffic lights turn red before retrieving the nut's contents. Rooks at a motorway service station in England have discovered a novel method for gaining access to food thrown in rubbish bins. Two birds cooperate in pulling up the bin liner and then either feeding from the raised food or tossing the contents onto the ground where the waiting crowd of colony mates reap the rewards. As the crow flies… Most of the corvids that have been studied in detail hide food for the future in times of food abundance and then rely on memory to recover the food caches at a later date when food is scarce. For example, the Clark's nutcracker is estimated to hide over 30,000 pinyon seeds in many different places during the autumn in preparation for the harsh months ahead. Laboratory experiments have shown that they have highly accurate spatial memories, which enable them to recover these caches up to 9 months later. This is no mean feat when there are so many caches to keep track of, scattered throughout the territory, and when many aspects of the landscape change so dramatically across seasons. It has been suggested that Clark's nutcrackers rely on remembering the location of large vertical landmarks such as trees and rocks in the environment, because these landmarks are unlikely to be blown away or buried under the snow. What do scrub-jays recall about past caching events? Although western scrub-jays do not hide as many seed caches as the nutcrackers, they are known to cache a variety of perishable foods, such as insects and fruit, as well as non-perishable nuts and seeds. In the laboratory, these birds demonstrate remarkable memories for what they have cached on a given day, and how long ago, as well as where they hid the various food items during that particular caching episode. This ability to remember the ‘what, where and when’ of specific past events is thought to be akin to human episodic memory, because it involves recalling a particular episode that has happened in the past. Until recently, this ability was thought to be unique to humans. Avian espionage… Food-caching is a risky strategy, however, because the caches can be stolen by other birds. In addition to hiding their own food caches, corvids also play the role of thief: they watch and remember where other birds have hidden their caches and use this information to steal those caches when the owner has left the scene. When playing the role of thief, speed is of the essence and may make the difference between a successful raid and vicious attack by the owner of the food-cache. Not surprisingly, corvids also employ a number of counter strategies to reduce the risk that their own caches will be stolen by another bird. For example, they attempt to cache out of sight from potential thieves, or wait until the raider is distracted before hiding their caches, and if that is not possible, they hide caches in places that are difficult for the thief to see. When there is little option but to cache when others are around, then the birds will return to the caches once the others have left, and quickly re-hide any remaining caches in new places unbeknown to the potential raider. Laboratory experiments have established that western scrub-jays use all these techniques to protect their caches from potential thieves, and only do so if another bird is present at the time of caching. Furthermore, they only move their caches to new hiding places if they have been thieves themselves in the past. Naı̈ve jays, even ones who have watched other birds caching but have never had the opportunity to raid those caches, do not do so. This suggests that experienced birds relate information about their previous experience of being a thief to the possibility of future theft by another bird, and adjust their caching behaviour accordingly. Using your own experience to predict another individual's future behaviour in relation to your own – ‘putting yourself in someone else's shoes' – is thought to be one of the hallmarks of Theory of Mind, another ability that was thought to be uniquely human. Cultural tool use in crows? New Caledonian crows are extraordinarily skilled at making and using tools. In the wild, they make two types of tool. The hooked tools consist of twigs that are trimmed and sculpted into a functional hook, which the crows use to poke insect larvae out of tree holes. The crows also manufacture stepped-cut Pandanus leaves, which they use in different ways for different jobs: they make rapid back and forth movements for prey under soil, yet slow deliberate movements if the prey is in a hole. These tools are consistently made to a standardized pattern and carried around on foraging expeditions. The only other animals that display this diversity and flexibility in tool use and manufacture are the great apes. Thus, chimpanzees have been observed to manufacture a range of different tools that are used for specific purposes, and different geographical populations of chimpanzees use different tools for different uses, suggesting that there may be cultural variations in tool use. Observations of the crows' tool use in the wild also suggest similar levels of cultural complexity. For example, there is potential cumulative evolution in the complexity of stepped tools (increasing the number of steps required to make a more complex tool), analogous to minor technological innovations in humans. Crows from different geographical areas have different designs of tool, suggesting that crows may also show cultural variations in tool use.
Laboratory experiments confirm the sophisticated intellectual capabilities of these crows. One tool-using crow, called Betty, can manipulate novel man-made objects to solve a problem, such as reaching food in a bucket only accessible by using a hook to pull the bucket up. When the bent wire was stolen by another bird, Betty found a piece of straight wire that was lying on the floor, bent this wire into a hook and used it to lift up the bucket and reach the food! Betty proceeded to do this consistently. Furthermore, when given a tool box containing a variety of different tools to reach normally inaccessible food, she was able to select one of the correct length and width. So evidence of tool use and manufacture suggests that these crows can sometimes combine past experiences to produce novel solutions to problems.Feathered apes? Corvids are large-brained, social birds. They have an extensive developmental period in which they are dependent on their parents, and so have a long time-window in which to learn many different things from their parents and peers. They show a great propensity to find innovative solutions to novel problems, from the manufacture of tools to the protection of food from competitors. Furthermore, they appear to be particularly adept at predicting the future behaviour of conspecifics. These features are things they share in common with the apes. The common ancestor of mammals and birds lived over 280 million years ago, so it is hardly surprising that they have very different brains. It follows that intelligence in corvids and apes must have arisen independently in two groups with very different brains. Interestingly, the thinking part of the brain is correlated with propensity to innovate in both birds and primates, with the corvids and apes as the ‘star inventors’. So when it comes to intelligence, corvids are feathered apes.

Further reading

Where can I find out more?

R.P. Balda, A.C. Kamil and P.A. Bednekoff, Predicting cognitive capacities from natural histories: examples from four corvid species, Curr. Ornithol. 13 (1996), pp. 33–66.

N.S. Clayton, T.J. Bussey and A. Dickinson, Can animals recall the past and plan for the future?, Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 4 (2003), pp. 685–691.

N.J. Emery and N.S. Clayton, The mentality of crows: Convergent evolution of intelligence in corvids and apes, Science 306 (2004), pp. 1903–1907.

Heinrich, B. (1999). The Mind of the Raven (Harper Collins).

G.R. Hunt and R.D. Gray, Diversification and cumulative evolution in New Caledonian crow tool manufacture, Proc. Roy. Soc. Lond. B. 270 (2003), pp. 867–874.

L. Lefebvre, S.M. Reader and D. Sol, Brains, innovations and evolution in birds and primates, Brain Behav. Evol. 63 (2004), pp. 233–246.

A.A.S. Weir, J. Chappell and A. Kacelnik, Shaping of hooks in New Caledonian crows, Science 297 (2002), p. 981


“Reprinted from Current Biology, Vol 15 / Issue No 3, Author(s) Nicola Clayton and Nathan Emery, Corvid cognition, Page No. 1, Copyright 8 February 2005, with permission from Elsevier.”
Direct Link to Article click here.