In an instant the scene—a street with no traffic and no wind ruffling the tall pines—switched from serene to a frenzy of birds rocketing and ricocheting between trees, feathers flashing white and gray. Birds plummeting to the ground. Walking. Pecking. Large gray birds with black wings, white eye rings, and long sharp bills. The most intent were two that found the slice of ice dumped from the bird bath yesterday.
Was it the pancake of ice, gleaming white amid fallen pine needles and last summer’s plant detritus that attracted the Clark’s nutcrackers? Two took turns, crushing ice in their long beaks.
Clark’s nutcrackers extract the seeds from pine cones. According Wikipedia, a Clark’s nutcracker can store 98,000 pine seeds in one season.
I’ve seen Clark’s nutcrackers (not an Alaskan bird) only twice. Last summer on Paulina Peak (nearly 8,000 feet high) we were puzzled over the identity of a large gray bird perched on the top of a pine. The second time, a few weeks ago, I heard pounding and looked out the window to see four Clark’s nutcrackers using their beaks to break pieces of ice from a drift on the roof.
And now, a wild frenzy of Clark’s nutcrackers. All the other birds gone. No Steller’s or desert scrub jays. No doves or chickadees, nuthatches, finches, or robins.
Emily Dickinson offered the bird on her walkway “a crumb.” My offering was only what the Clark’s nutcrackers found on their own in our tiny yard and the lofty pines—ice and water, and maybe seeds.
Within a quarter hour, the frenetic flying and ground-searching ended. The flock vanished, I know not where, whether down the street, over the butte, or into the desert. The air was again uninterrupted by bursts of white and gray.
Later in the afternoon, we went walking in the Badlands Wilderness, trudging through sand still damp from snowmelt, the trail edged by juniper trees and clumps of rabbitbrush with silvery stems topped by tiny dried flower stars. After a couple hours, returning to the car, a raucous call broke the stillness — “Aack” — and we saw a flash of white as a Clark’s nutcracker settled onto the top branch of a juniper tree. The first call was answered — “Aack” — as another bird swooped into a bare snag, and we walked on, pondering the question of water in the desert, in whatever form.
Emily Dickinson lived from 1830 to 1886. Her poem “A Bird Came Down The Walk” blends observation and silliness, but also what might be helpful or meddling, the offer of a “crumb” and then the twist at the end where the whole universe gets rearranged. And of course the poem is fun to read aloud.
A Bird came down the Walk
by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass—
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass—
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around—
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—
He stirred his Velvet Head
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home—
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam—
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.