On a cloudy march morning in the Cascade Mountains of central Washington State, Taza Schaming has gotten her hopes up once again. She flew in late last night from her home in upstate New York and woke early to drive two hours to a trailhead outside the town of Wenatchee, but she’s upbeat as she straps her snowshoes to her pack. Her goal sounds simple enough: capture six Clark’s Nutcrackers and fit them with satellite tracking tags. But Schaming, a wildlife ecologist with the nonprofit Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, has failed twice to trap the sleek gray corvids on these rocky slopes. The first time, in March 2020, pandemic shutdowns forced her to turn around before she made it to Washington. In 2022 she spent days trekking to remote bait stations where she’d heard the birds had been spotted but came up empty. “Hopefully three times is the charm,” she says.
She’s back with a fresh determination to succeed—and well aware of what’s at stake. The Clark’s Nutcracker’s life is closely intertwined with that of whitebark pine, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed as threatened in 2022 under the Endangered Species Act. Scientists had already been alarmed by the decline of the conifer—its existence underpins this entire subalpine ecosystem—and have been doing what they can to conserve and restore it. But these efforts could be for naught without nutcrackers. The stark, scraggly conifers depend primarily on nutcrackers to disperse their seeds, which the birds collect and cache for winter. If the birds don’t keep sowing new trees across the vast landscape, the whole ecosystem could falter. And while nutcracker populations appear to be healthy, the further decline of their preferred food could spell trouble in the coming years.
The satellite tags Schaming is keen to deploy could provide important new insights into the relationship between the birds and the trees. She plans to correlate nutcracker tracks to whitebark locations and determine how much time the corvids spend in stands of different sizes, densities, and health. Scientists charged with the tree’s survival could use that information to determine where to focus conservation efforts, says Andy Bower, a climate adaptation specialist and whitebark pine expert with the U.S. Forest Service. “If there are only 10 trees in an area, will the nutcrackers still visit those 10 trees?” he says. “Is there a certain number below which they just don’t bother?”
To find out, Schaming first needs to catch the birds. A few weeks ago, a volunteer hung cages packed with beef suet—irresistible to a nutcracker—at three points along the trail. Schaming set out for the first bait station feeling optimistic: The volunteer said a nutcracker had watched with interest as she put up the calorie-packed treat. Schaming, who was a backcountry skier long before she became a scientist, transitions easily from hiking to snowshoeing. After 45 minutes she reaches the first bait and finds it suspiciously absent of peck marks. A quick check of the adjacent wildlife camera confirms that no nutcrackers have visited.
There’s no reason—or time—for Schaming to hang around. The nutcrackers will be nesting soon, and a few weeks later, when their chicks fledge, they might start dispersing to other areas or even higher up the slopes. It’s difficult for even a seasoned mountaineer like Schaming to follow the birds to those altitudes—much less catch them. Plus, she’s eager to get home to her young daughter. Undaunted, she sets off toward the second bait, located 150 feet off the trail, up a steep slope blanketed in calf-deep snow.
o a budding ecologist itching for a physical and mental challenge, whitebark pines and the nutcrackers that live among them would be appealing subjects. The trees thrive in treacherous landscapes; on the mountains they inhabit, they typically grow at higher elevations than any other pines. To follow the birds requires traversing steep slopes and braving chaotic winds and freezing temperatures. It takes constant vigilance and a special grit to avoid accidents, avalanches, and dangerous wildlife encounters—especially on long days alone in the backcountry. When Schaming began the research 15 years ago, these features only reaffirmed her career choice. “I just love being in the mountains,” she says.
Since then, Schaming has been driven to bolster the ecosystem that provides so much value for both wildlife and people. As they take root at the tree line—the point above which trees cannot exist—whitebarks stabilize the ground and block the wind. Over time, soil accumulates, turning a barren slope into habitat for dozens of plants and animals. The pines also slow spring snowmelt, ensuring gradual runoff, rather than potential floods that degrade habitat and waste precious water. And more than 21 species of birds and mammals, from Cassin’s Finches and White-headed Woodpeckers to ground squirrels and grizzly bears, depend on their fatty, protein-packed seeds. “When I realized that this whitebark habitat was dying, and that we knew so little about the bird species that was intimately connected to it, it just made so much sense to me that I could go out and do something I loved and help protect the habitat,” Schaming says.
These trees that anchor the whitebark ecosystem are in serious trouble. Clusters of the pines dot the peaks of the western United States and Canada, but more than half of all standing whitebark in the United States are dead. “A lot of places are just skeleton forest,” says Alison Scoville, an evolutionary ecologist at Central Washington University. “It feels kind of devastating.”
The most insidious problem is white pine blister rust, a deadly disease caused by an invasive fungus that attacks branches and chokes off nutrients. Native mountain pine beetle outbreaks are another threat; their larvae can ravage most trees in a stand in warm years when they reproduce especially successfully. What’s more, fire suppression has disrupted a natural regenerative pattern: Whitebarks evolved to resist low-intensity fires, and nutcrackers busily cache seeds into recently burned areas. All these threats compound one another, and all are exacerbated by a warming climate that allows blister rust to spread, beetle larvae to survive the winter, and wildfires to burn so hot they kill mature whitebark. Additionally, seedlings grow very slowly into mature trees—it takes at least 60 years for them to start producing a full cone crop—making it even harder for a struggling stand to recover from a hit.
Stands that make it to maturity need nutcrackers because whitebark forests are so fragmented. “These mountaintops are not contiguous,” Scoville says. “It’s like islands in the sky.” The birds can log hundreds of miles as they crisscross their ranges to collect food throughout the year, making them ideal long-distance couriers. They’re adventurous eaters; depending on what’s available, their diet may include nuts, berries, insects, and roadkill. But whitebark seeds are by far their favorite food. Pound for pound, they rival butter for calories. “There’s just a lot of bang for your buck,” Schaming says.
Nutcrackers are so effective at dispersing whitebark seeds that the trees have evolved to rely on them completely. Whitebark pinecones don’t dry out and release seeds to the wind, or curl open during fires, like the cones of other pines. The purple cones grow at the tips of branches, making them easy for a bird in flight to spot. Instead of dangling, they protrude sideways—conveniently positioned at beak level for a nutcracker that lands in the canopy. The birds’ long, pointed bills are the perfect shape for jabbing open the woody scales of unripe pinecones and retrieving the fatty seeds inside.
What they don’t eat on the spot, they deposit in tree crevices or peck into the ground as insurance against winter famine. A single bird can cache nearly 100,000 seeds every year, dispersing them up to 20 miles from the tree that produced them. Though they have an astounding ability to remember where the seeds are, nutcrackers cache far more than they’ll ever eat. Plenty of seeds remain in the soil, buried at the perfect depth to germinate into new trees.
Though scientists have long been aware of this mutualistic relationship, a deeper understanding of it is now more important than ever. Nutcracker numbers seem to be dropping where whitebark are declining, but scientists don’t have reliable overall population estimates or fully understand how the birds might respond to a deteriorating subalpine habitat. If too many trees die, the birds could struggle to fill the caches they depend on in winter and spring. It’s possible that nutcrackers, which eat the seeds of multiple conifers, might thrive on food sources in other areas, but that would leave the whitebarks that have depended on them for millennia in the lurch. Untangling the many threads of the problem requires more sophisticated tracking than has been attempted in this environment before—and someone willing and able to deploy them.
raving the frigid months to trap nutcrackers might seem forbidding, but Schaming has found it to be the best time to get ahold of the birds. Because food is scarce, the corvids are more likely to visit her bait stations. Nutcrackers are facultative migrants, moving in response to environmental changes: Rather than winging it south come fall, they move depending largely on food availability. They generally breed in lower forests with a mix of trees. As spring turns to summer and then fall, families often move upslope to eat fresh seeds directly from cones and stockpile thousands upon thousands for the following winter.
For her Ph.D. research, Schaming spent months at a time in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. She’d tromp through the snow early in the year to trap dozens of nutcrackers and outfit them with radio transmitters, then follow her subjects as ice and cold gave way to mud and swarms of mosquitoes. She monitored nests, watching parents take turns incubating their three or four eggs and then bringing shelled seeds and insects to their hatchlings. She became intimately familiar with the birds’ day-to-day movements, their food preferences, and even their personalities. “Some were much more timid, and other ones were much more curious,” Schaming says.
In Wyoming, she watched as the birds spent a lot of time in the same whitebark stands one year, only to range more widely the next. The shifts seemed linked to variables like cone crop abundance and breeding success, but nothing definitively explained them. Occasionally, a tagged bird flew outside the 30-mile range of her radio receiver and Schaming never picked up its signal again. It was a nagging gap in the data: “You don’t know if they moved to the next mountain range over or to Canada.”
That information can guide conservation decisions about both the charismatic corvids and the trees they sustain. By the time she expanded her research into the Cascade Mountains, solar-powered transmitters had become light enough for a 4.5-ounce bird to carry. The gadgets promised to help answer questions that had long pestered Schaming: What conditions prompt the nutcrackers to move? How depleted does a pine stand need to be before they decide it’s not worth it? How far are they willing to travel for better prospects? Once they’ve seemingly abandoned a foraging spot, will they ever return?
In 2018, Schaming deployed satellite tags on nutcrackers in the northern Cascades, working with a colleague who was investigating the nutcracker-whitebark dynamic there. Preliminary data revealed that the birds stuck to the same general area for years. If she can finally tag nutcrackers in the central Cascades, their tracks will help her build a fuller picture of how the birds use the entire subalpine ecosystem, including threatened whitebark stands. As a complement to the tracking study, Schaming is partnering with Scoville on an acoustic monitoring project they launched in 2020. This past October their team put battery-powered recorders 20 feet up in whitebark trees across the Cascades; in June they’ll collect them and analyze hours of recordings to pick up the birds’ loud, guttural calls. This will help them map nutcracker presence and abundance throughout the Cascades.
The acoustic study is just one of many projects working toward documenting and slowing the tree’s decline. The 2022 threatened listing has given these efforts a boost by facilitating strategic, coordinated, range-wide research and conservation. Scientists like Bower, of the Forest Service, have made targeted efforts to apply verbenone, a pheromone that signals to mountain pine beetles that a tree is already infected. To combat blister rust, scientists are gathering seeds from naturally resistant trees and growing their hardy offspring to plant in areas that need extra support. Better and more detailed surveys of where the trees are located and how they’re faring are underway. The birds Schaming tags could help pinpoint where to focus planting and restoration, and reveal where, for now, nature is following its course, with birds sowing the next generation of whitebark across vast acreage, in places too perilous for people.
Back in the Cascades in March, Schaming finds the second bait untouched. Another hour on the trail later, the final site is also a bust. Luckily, Schaming is used to adapting, to assessing and reassessing her options, like a nutcracker consulting its mental map of where it cached its seeds last autumn. They now include an email tip about birds at a private feeder and a colleague’s offer to take her to a remote site by snowmobile. It’s time for plan B.
he work has never been easy, but it used to be easier. When her daughter, Suneva, was little, before Schaming’s husband died unexpectedly in 2017, the trio would pile into a camper van and stay at Schaming’s Wyoming field site as long as necessary. A few delays or missed opportunities didn’t make much difference, and Schaming didn’t have to rely on volunteers to do the initial setup. Now, with so many elements beyond her control and the pull to get home to her daughter, serendipity doesn’t feel like the safe bet it used to be.
After striking out with the bait sites, she heads down the mountain and drives to the home of Jenny Graevell, a retired agriculture inspector and birder whose backyard feeders nutcrackers have supposedly been visiting every day. She’s never met Graevell, and she wonders if birds habituated to feeders venture into wilder habitats often enough to give her the intel she’s looking for. It’s an imperfect option, but it’s now her best one.
When she arrives, Graevell swears nutcrackers were at her feeders just 10 minutes ago. Yet for the next hour only Steller’s Jays, a Hairy Woodpecker, and several bursts of Black-capped Chickadees appear. If Schaming is frustrated, she’s not showing it. The only thing to do is keep trying.
The next morning at Graevell’s, Schaming sits on the frozen ground, ready to deploy her trap. Thirty feet away she sprinkled peanuts and set up a bow net, a hoop-shaped contraption that will spring up and over a bird when it lands to get a treat. Today, serendipity is on her side: The first peckish nutcracker touches down in minutes. Schaming deftly disentangles the bird; bands, weighs, and measures it; and collects a few drops of blood. She then fastens the satellite tag around the bird’s breast with Teflon cord—she’s not taking any chances with $3,500-a-pop devices—which she slips over its shoulders and beneath its wings, like backpack straps. “Hold on, buddy; this takes a little while,” she tells the bird. She wants the cord to be snug but not dig into the flesh, a distinction she knows by muscle memory.
Finally, the harness secured to her satisfaction, Schaming gently jostles the nutcracker so that it flaps its wings, assuring her they’re not obstructed. She gazes at her newest research subject with genuine pride and affection—and, one suspects, no small amount of gratitude. Then the breeze picks up, Schaming raises her arm, and the nutcracker takes off into the trees.
It will be a few more days before Schaming has tagged all six nutcrackers, a few more weeks before she confirms that they’re transmitting data consistently, and a few more months before one of them is spotted a few miles away, teaching its newly fledged offspring to eat from a feeder. Come early fall, the trackers will reveal that only one of the tagged birds is still in the area. One bird has died, one has moved to northern Oregon, one has flown more than 300 miles to eastern Idaho, and two more have journeyed even farther to the Oregon-California border. Perhaps this summer’s particularly slim cone crops from whitebarks and other pines spurred them to move; this past fall eBird records revealed that there was a major flight of Clark’s Nutcrackers toward the Oregon and Californian coasts, and one bird wandered east to Wisconsin, establishing one of the few state records there. This winter, Schaming will eagerly watch to see which of her nutcrackers return to breed and which, if any, look to be setting up residence elsewhere.
But Schaming isn’t thinking about any of that now, in the moments after she’s released her first tagged bird in the wake of so many disappointments. She simply fills up her lungs with the crisp mountain air and breathes a deep sigh of relief.
This story originally ran in the Winter 2023 issue as “On the Right Track.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.