‘Tis the Season of the Nutcracker, a classical ballet which is set on Christmas Eve. A young girl, Clara, receives a gift from her Uncle Drosselmeyer. It is a wooden nutcracker. This practical toy has a movable jaw, which when closed, exerts enough pressure to crack a nut.
There are a number of birds which, like the magical Nutcracker, have strong beaks adapted to crack a nut or hull a seed.
Among our winter birds, grosbeaks, cardinals, and finches are nutcrackers. Their cone- shaped beaks can exert enormous pressure and they make short work removing shells.
Seed-eating birds which lack the nutcracking beaks sometimes swallow seed whole. These birds also consume small pieces of gravel or grit which, like miniature millstones, grind the seeds in specialized stomach compartments.
But some of our birds have weak beaks, and yet the must remove the hulls or shells to eat and they are not likely to find a handsome nutcracker doll under a Christmas tree.
Blue jays and nuthatches lack strong beaks, so they wedge seeds cracks in the bark and then hammer or peck them open, or else, they pound the seeds against a hard object until they yield. This can be awkward.
In contrast, graceful chickadees solve this little problem with their toes. Have you ever watched a chickadee eat? It carefully selects a seed, then carries it off to a nearby branch where it tucks it between its toes and with delicate fluttery coordination, pecks at it until it cracks.
Many of our winter birds are nutcrackers. Other birds like jays and nuthatches hack at seeds. But chickadees must prepare food for consumption with grace and agility. For them, being a nutcracker is a ballet.