nutcracker

nutcracker

[nuht-krak-er]
nutcracker, common name for a small crow of the genus Nucifraga in the family Corvidae (crow family). The Old World nutcracker (N. caryocatactes) is found throughout the colder regions of Europe, including high mountain forests. Its plumage is chocolate brown, speckled with white. With its strong, conical beak, it feeds omnivorously on a diet of conifer seeds, nuts, small buds, and insects. In a squirrellike fashion, it stores seeds during the summer and fall against the winter's snow, and has a remarkable ability to relocate its cache exactly, even though covered with snow. Clark's nutcracker (N. columbians), pale gray with black and white wings, is found throughout W North America, and is similar in its habits and choice of habitat to N. caryocatactes. It somewhat resembles a stout-billed mockingbird. Like most crows, nutcrackers are intelligent and aggressive birds. They are highly gregarious, and their flocks show a complex social organization. Their young are born blind and helpless. Nutcrackers are classified in the phylum Chordata, subphylum Vertebrata, class Aves, order Passeriformes, family Corvidae.

A nutcracker is a mechanical device for cracking nuts. It works on the principle of moments as described in Archimedes' analysis of the lever. The ballet The Nutcracker derives its name from this festive holiday decoration.

Functional

Manufacturers produce modern nutcrackers—designed solely to crack nuts—usually somewhat resembling pliers, but with the pivot point at the end beyond the nut, rather than in the middle. These are also used for cracking the shells of crab and lobster in order to make the meat inside available for eating.

Parrots use their beaks as natural nutcrackers, in much the same way smaller birds crack seeds. In this case, the pivot point stands opposite the nut, at the jaw.

Decorative

Nutcrackers in the form of wooden carvings of a soldier, knight, king, or other profession have existed since at least the 15th century. These nutcrackers portray a person with a large mouth which the operator opens by lifting a lever in the back of the figurine. Originally one could insert a nut in the big-toothed mouth, press down and thereby crack the nut. Modern nutcrackers in this style serve mostly for decoration, mainly at Christmas time.

The carving of nutcrackers—as well as of religious figures and of cribsdeveloped as a cottage industry in forested rural areas of Germany. The most famous nutcracker carvings come from Sonneberg in Thuringia (also a center of dollmaking) and from the Ore Mountains. Wood-carving usually provided the only income for the people living there. Today the travel industry supplements their income by bringing visitors to the remote areas.

Steinbach Nutcrackers have become popular in the United States as well, and a recreated "Bavarian village" of Leavenworth, Washington even features a Nutcracker Museum. Many other materials also serve to make decorated nutcrackers, such as porcelain, silver, and brass; the museum displays samples.

Carvings by famous names like Junghanel, Klaus Mertens, Karl, Olaf Kolbe, Petersen, Christian Ulbricht and especially the Steinbach nutcrackers have become collectors' items.

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