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Johnny Appleseed versus Clark's Nutcracker
I last wrote about Clark’s nutcrackers in Deep into Yellowstone: “Whitebark pine seeds are one of that bird’s most important foods. To get the goodies, a nutcracker must tear apart a whitebark’s tough cones. After reaching the seeds, the bird flies away, carrying batches. It buries the seeds in scattered caches where it hopes to feed later in the year. But the birds don’t find all that buried treasure. Seeds not eaten can sprout and expand the forest. The Clark’s nutcracker is the Johnny Appleseed of whitebark pine.”
Rereading that paragraph recently, I wondered how the planting of apple trees by Johnny Appleseed, one obsessed and wandering nurseryman, would compare with the planting of pine trees by one Clark’s nutcracker—such as the bird pictured above—intent on survival in Yellowstone.
Realizing I knew little about Appleseed (pictured above), I went digging. I found W.D. Haley’s biographical sketch that was published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1871. This, I learned, is an often-used source about Jonathan Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed.
The Appleseed part of Chapman’s life, writes Haley, began in 1801 as the twenty-six-year-old roamed the then-wild Ohio Territory, intent on creating future orchards from “a horse-load of apple seeds” gathered from distant apple cider presses in Pennsylvania.
In comparison, this nutcracker gathers its seeds from nearby pine forests. Determined to eat whitebark pine seeds all year long, the bird buries seeds each fall so it may find and consume them to survive the long harsh winter in Yellowstone’s high country. The bird will also feed its young on seeds in spring. This single Clark’s nutcracker can cache tens of thousands of seeds—even a hundred thousand—in a single season.
Appleseed almost always walked, usually barefooted or, as Haley described it, in “a rude pair of sandals even in the coldest weather.” He also wore “a coffee sack, in which he cut holes for his head and arms to pass through.” He searched for planting sites in “open places on loamy lands that border the creeks—rich, secluded spots hemmed in by giant trees…”
This nutcracker, in contrast, flies on broad floppy wings to the terrain it prefers for burying seeds: exposed slopes or gravelly soil, the opposite of sites Appleseed preferred.
While Appleseed used a shovel to plant, this nutcracker employs that long, pointed bill to dig a small trench. The bird then inserts a few seeds from the hundred or so it has carried to the hiding place in a pouch under its tongue. The nutcracker uses its bill to flick dirt and gravel and cover the treasure.
Appleseed chose his planting locations by staying ahead of western settlement and “…the locations of his nurseries,” writes Haley, “were all fixed with a view to a probable demand for the trees by the time they had attained sufficient growth for transplanting.” Some nurseries he sold; some he gave away.
This nutcracker doesn’t bury seeds with a demand for pine or profits in mind. It doesn’t bury with the idea of growing new trees. Instead, trees sprout from its buried stash simply because the bird fails to recall the seeds’ locations. Now, I’m not criticizing the nutcracker’s memory. The bird’s recall is far better than mine. Research shows that this intelligent bird locates thousands of caches—even up to six months later—by remembering nearby landmarks. But it doesn’t find them all.
Appleseed lived to be seventy-two and died a peaceful death in the home of a stranger that had, like so many others, welcomed, fed, and sheltered him. Jonathan Chapman spent forty-six years of his life, writes Haley, “…homeless, solitary, and ragged, he trod the thorny earth with bare and bleeding feet, intent only upon making the wilderness fruitful.”
This nutcracker could live up to seventeen years, that’s the oldest age on record, according to The Cornell Lab. However many years it lives, all of them are spent making the wilderness fruitful too.
But this nutcracker’s planting of whitebark pine is becoming more difficult—and ever more important—due to the effects of climate change, including increases in the number of wildfires and pine beetles. “A staggering 85 percent of whitebark pines have already disappeared from some parts of their historic range,” reports the Endangered Species Coalition.
This industrious nutcracker plays a critical part in saving whitebark pine forests. Nutcrackers are so efficient that whitebark pine—a single tree can live for 400 to 1,000 years—have evolved in ways that help the birds spread their seeds and expand whitebark pine forests.
Johnny Appleseed’s acres of orchards made him a folk hero and remained long after he was gone. So will the multitude of whitebark pines that will sprout from the uneaten caches of this one unheralded Clark’s nutcracker.
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My bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed. My books are also available on Amazon unsigned or as eBook or audiobook.
Photo of Clark’s nutcracker by Rick Lamplugh
Photo of Johnny Appleseed via public domain