For the Birds Radio Program: White-breasted Nuthatch

Original Air Date: Nov. 18, 1988

Today Laura Erickson talks about a true bird of the Northland, the White-breasted Nuthatch.

Duration: 3′43″


(Recording of a White-breasted Nuthatch)

The Northland has a bird for every type of person–chickadees are like children who in the middle of a blizzard think of snowmen and snow dinosaurs and all the other jolly possibilities of winter, Great Horned Owls are like grownups who hunker down and sit grimly still for the duration, Downy Woodpeckers are the businesspeople who go about their work no matter what, and Bald Eagles are outdoor types who exult in the cold, taking pride in their sheer endurance and ability to handle the worst weather with dignity. There are even Yellow-rumped Warblers who are like the shiverers who wish they were anyplace south of here.

But the bird that most reminds me of the traditional image of a true Minnesotan is the White-breasted Nuthatch. Listen to what Winsor Marrett Tyler wrote about the nuthatch in his contribution to The Life Histories of North American Birds and see if it doesn’t sound exactly like someone out of Lake Wobegon:

The white-breasted nuthatch is a droll, earnest little bird, rather sedate and unemotional. He is no great musician and seems to lack a sense of humor. He has none of the irrepressible fidgitiness of the house wren, none of the charming happiness of the song sparrow; he appears to take life on a matter-of-fact level. He is short-necked, broad-shouldered, sturdy, quick and sure in his motions, suggesting an athlete, and as we study him on his daily round, as he hops up and down over the bark, we see that he is an athlete with marked skill as an acrobat, like the tumbling kind, as much at home upside down as right side up.”

Yes, the White-breasted Nuthatch could excel at even hockey if only the pucks stayed up on the ceiling. These little birds, with their upside-down perceptions and their sincere but humorless ways, are like true Minnesotans who couldn’t be swayed by all the slick and polished acting skills in the world to vote for a Hollywood B star even though the other 49 states all went the other way four years ago. They dress in functional but plain, even dull, plumage—you could easily picture them wearing Sorels to a dance. And nuthatches are one of the few birds that can be heard complaining about the weather, like any true Minnesotans. Their little griping notes in the stillness of a winter day are one of the comfortable sounds you can count on when other birds are silent.

(Recording of a White-breasted Nuthatch)

Nuthatches even have sedate, Minnesotan-style marriages. Pairs often stick together over the long winter, but they pretty much ignore each other in a state of benevolent tolerance. The males never start thinking of romance until well after Superbowl Sunday. Once football and hockey season are over for another season and there’s not much else to do, they get about the business of making new little nuthatches—but even this they do in a business-like way, getting the whole process over as quickly as possible by raising an average of eight babies at a time rather than stretching out the season by raising two smaller broods each year the way robins do.

Nuthatches dine on nuts, acorns, and other vegetable matter, and frozen insect eggs and pupae. That may sound dull and even unappetizing, but I have been assured by every nuthatch I ever talked to that it tastes no better and no worse than the Northland’s official food–lutefisk.

(Recording of a White-breasted Nuthatch)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”