Nature News: Red-breasted nuthatches are feisty little birds

Red-breasted nuthatches are one of my favorite birds. Admittedly, I have a lot of favorites, but these are at the top of my list perhaps because they, as birds with a more northerly range than the white-breasted nuthatch, are a little less common around here and are therefore more of a treat to see. Or perhaps it is that perky line through their eye and the red on their breast that makes them look a bit more dressed up than the white-breasted. Perhaps it is the amount of energy that radiates from such a tiny body as it stakes a claim to my birdfeeder, chasing away much larger birds.

Red-breasted nuthatch Sue Pike photo

Two species of nuthatch live in our part of New England: the larger, more common white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), which prefers mature deciduous forests, and the smaller red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), which prefers coniferous forests. You will often hear these birds before they show up at your feeder. Audubon’s field guide describes the white-breasted nuthatch call as a nasal ‘yank-yank’ and the red-breasted’s as a “tinny yank-yank, higher pitched and more nasal than the call of the white-breasted nuthatch.”

“Hatch” is thought to have come from the word “hack” as in hacking through nuts

Their common name, nuthatch, comes from their habit of wedging seeds that are too large to eat whole, like acorns or sunflower seeds, into cracks in the bark and then hacking (hatch is thought to have come from the word hack) them open with their long sharp beaks. If you see nuthatches carrying what look to be an inordinate number of seeds away from your feeder there is a good chance they are stashing them for use later in the winter. They’ll cram them into crevices in the tree and hide them under bits of lichen or bark.

Nuthatches eat a wide variety of insects in both summer and winter, but will also eat seeds and nuts when insects are scarce. Both types eat all kinds of birdfeeder offerings – seeds and nuts, as well as suet. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithologym, red-breasted nuthatches will take the heaviest food item available. I can’t wait to experiment with this idea by offering a variety of seeds with different weights and seeing which ones my red-breasted nuthatch chooses.

White-breasted nuthatch Sue Pike photo

Nuthatches have a number of adaptations that allow them to walk headfirst down a tree

Nuthatches are probably best known for their habit of moving headfirst down tree trunks in search of food. They have strong legs, feet and claws that help them grasp the bark as they move in all directions up and down a tree. By moving headfirst down a tree trunk they are able to find insects hidden in nooks and crannies in the bark that are often overlooked by birds moving up the tree. The Canadian Wildlife Federation describes the red-breasted nuthatch as having “a greatly enlarged hind toe and a stubby tail, which are probably both adaptations for climbing downwards; the toe provides secure footing, and a long, floppy tail could get in the way.”

Nuthatches line their nest holes with pine pitch

One final favorite thing about red-breasted nuthatches – they will excavate holes in dead trees (or use pre-existing holes) and line the outside and inside edges of the hole with pine pitch. It isn’t clear exactly why they do this – the smell is thought to somehow discourage predators. I was able to watch a red-breasted nuthatch nest cavity in full swing last summer. To avoid getting into the pitch, the tiny birds zoomed into the hole without stopping, presumably putting on the brakes upon entry. They would dart out of the hole in the same way, not stopping to perch in the opening as I kept expecting them to do. It looked like an extremely difficult maneuver and certainly added to my admiration for these feisty little birds.

Originally published February 16, 2018, The York Weekly, Fosters Daily, the Portsmouth Herald