Memory Superstar Eats Like a Bird

How has your memory been lately? You’ve been a little absent-minded, haven’t you? (Your keys are on the dining room table, right where you left them.)

If you don’t have a border collie to help you remember things, you may want to see if there are any Clark’s Nutcrackers in the neighborhood.

Clark's Nutcracker thinking about eating 30,000 pine nuts (photo: US Fish & Wildlife Service)

Clark’s Nutcrackers are medium-sized birds in the corvid family (the same family as jays, crows and ravens) that live in the Western United States and that rely on their memory to relocate stored food during the long winter months.  Every year, they can harvest more than 30,000 seeds from pine cones, which they then hide in thousands of separate places within a 15 mile or so radius.

Their memories for these locations are pretty incredible.  As one researcher, Brett Gibson, described it in a ScienceDaily1 article:

Nutcrackers are almost exclusively dependent upon cache recovery for their survival so if they don’t remember where they’ve made those caches, then they are in trouble. During winter, their cache locations are covered with snow so many of the small local features in the landscape during fall are no longer available to them. What’s clear is that they are using spatial memory to recover these caches. They are remembering these caches based on landmarks and other features of the terrain.

Another biologist, Russell Balda, who has studied Nutcrackers for a number of decades, is even more effusive in National Wildlife2 magazine:

How these birds find their caches looked like an incredible feat when we began studying them. We soon found out that the Clark’s nutcracker is the spatial memory superstar of the avian world, and possibly of the vertebrate world.

These two articles note that there is still some uncertainty about exactly how the Nutcracker is able to have such an astonishingly good memory. Regardless of how they do it, though, I think we all can be impressed by – and a little jealous of – these birds and their brains.


1ScienceDaily, “Researcher Uncovering Mysteries Of Memory By Studying Clever Bird,” October 12, 2006.

2National Wildlife, “THE BIRD THAT NEVER FORGETS – The unassuming Clark’s nutcracker has one of the most remarkable memories in the animal kingdom,” October 1, 2000.

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