The nutcrackers (Nucifraga) are a genus of three species of passerine bird, in the family Corvidae, related to the jays and crows. The genus name is a New Latin translation of German Nussbrecher, "nut-breaker".
The spotted nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes), occurs in Europe and Asia, and the large-spotted nutcracker (N. multipunctata), which occurs in the Himalayas, and is sometimes considered a subspecies of the spotted. The Clark's nutcracker (N. columbiana), occurs in western North America.
The most important food resources for both these species are the seeds (pine nuts) of various pines (Pinus sp.), principally the cold-climate (far northern or high altitude) species of white pine (Pinus subgenus Strobus) with large seeds: P. albicaulis, P. armandii, P. cembra, P. flexilis, P. koraiensis, P. parviflora, P. peuce, P. pumila, P. sibirica and P. wallichiana, and also the pinyon and lacebark pines in subgenus Ducampopinus. In some regions, where none of these pines occur, the seeds of spruce (Picea sp.) and hazelnuts (Corylus sp.) form an important part of the diet too. The bills of these birds are specialized tools for extracting seeds from pine cones.
Surplus seed is always stored for later use, and it is this genus that is responsible for the re-establishment of their favoured pines over large areas either burnt in forest fires or cleared by man. The nutcracker can store as many as 30,000 pine nuts in a single season, remembering the location of as many as 70% of their stash, even when buried in snow.
Nesting is always early in this genus, so as to make the best use of pine nuts stored the previous autumn. The nest is usually built high in a conifer. There are normally 2–4 eggs laid and incubated for 18 days. Both sexes feed the young which are usually fledged by about 23 days and stay with their parents for many months, following them to learn food storage techniques.
None of the species are migratory, but they will leave their usual ranges if a cone crop failure causes a food shortage.
- Nutcracker videos on the Internet Bird Collection