Curious Nature: A new name for nutcrackers
I remember the excitement I felt the first time I saw a Clark’s nutcracker perched atop a blue spruce. Slightly larger than robins, nutcrackers are most identifiable by their long, pointed bills. They’re not the showiest birds, with mostly gray bodies, black wings and white outer tail feathers, but like their corvid cousins, they’re intelligent tricksters.
Although I’ve never found a bird I didn’t like, Clark’s nutcrackers are a favorite of mine for many reasons. I’m fascinated by these sociable doomsday preppers, who spend fall storing thousands of seeds in caches to feed on during the harsh winter.
Nutcrackers are found in coniferous forests 3,000-12,000 feet in elevation. They eat pine seeds, using their beaks to crack open cones and seeds, then test the quality by “bill clicking,” quickly opening and closing their bills while they roll a seed back and forth. They can carry up to 150 seeds in a pouch under their tongue to bury in soil or store in wood crevices.
Incredibly, Clark’s nutcrackers are able to remember most of their cache locations by using landmarks like rocks and trees. It’s impossible to remember all locations, so Clark’s nutcrackers become inadvertent foresters, dispersing seeds that grow into pine forests. It’s believed that some entire whitebark pine forests may be the result of nutcracker caches.
Clark’s nutcrackers have big personalities; whether attempting to steal food from another’s cache or mobbing raptors, they are always getting into trouble. Despite their troublemaker status, nutcrackers are very social, often found foraging in groups or intermingled with other species. They are monogamous and loyal, engaging in courtship such as swooping displays and feeding their partner.
While nutcrackers are hard at work preparing for winter, a movement to change their name, and names of many other birds, is taking place. Many birds have eponymous common names, which honor someone who first recorded or had some relation to the species.
The organization, Bird Names For Birds, is at the forefront of the movement to foster inclusion in the birdwatching community by renaming birds to honor their behaviors and unique attributes. Many eponymous names are tied to legacies of violence and exploitation of nonwhite peoples.
In the case of Clark’s nutcrackers, named for William Clark, controversy over the Lewis and Clark expedition has led to calls for renaming. The expedition set the groundwork for colonialism in western North America, and European settlers that followed saw it as their right to claim land occupied by Native Americans as their own.
Clark traveled with an enslaved man named York, who was essential to the success of the expedition. He protected Lewis and Clark, risked his life to save Clark and mapped much of the expedition, yet Clark still saw York’s contributions as insufficient to earn his freedom. He remained an enslaved man after the expedition, only granted freedom several decades later. York’s contributions are rarely recognized in history, while Lewis and Clark are well known and taught about in schools.
Clark’s nutcrackers are just one example of many birds whose names honor a history of colonialism, racism and violence. The North American Classification Committee of the American Ornithological Society says it best as it recognizes, “continuing to use harmful English names in ornithology unfairly demands tolerance from already marginalized people, creating an unnecessary barrier to the field of ornithology.”
So we, the birding community, propose a change. We urge you to consider how eponymous common names perpetuate barriers to birding. I believe a new name, such as the woodpecker crow or pine nutcracker would better honor the nutcracker’s quirky behavior, what do you think?
Marin Harnett is a Naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. She enjoys learning about birds and believes birding is for everyone!