For the Birds Radio Program: White-breasted Nuthatch
Some time in February, it starts to occur to even those of us who love snow that a Northland winter lasts a long. long time. But despite cold temperatures and snowstorms, days are getting noticeably longer now, and even as we open our door to a blast of cold, we are starting to hear sounds of spring. Woodpeckers drum loudly, slamming their faces into trees with the same testosterone-induced gusto that prods football players on to the Super Bowl. Chickadees provide the alternative “chick flick” with their endearing “Hey, sweetie” whistles. And the loud, ringing song of the White-breasted Nuthatch floats through the winter air with increasing insistence, announcing the little singer’s impatience with winter and all the foolishness of its avian counterparts.
White-breasted Nuthatches are sturdy, practical little birds, stout of girth, thick of neck, short and stumpy of tail. They are the H.L. Menckens of the bird world, acerbic and critical, ever ready to deliver a quick, derogatory comment on the follies of their neighbors. Female nuthatches find the males’ vitriolic social criticism attractive and enticing, and are quick to add their own biting one-liners.
Perhaps the reason nuthatches’ songs and calls sound so critical to the human ear is that these birds literally see the world from an upside-down point of view. Ornithologists explain that the typical nuthatch pose, standing head downward on the trunk of a tree, allows them to forage in crevices that other birds don’t notice. Whether picking at bugs in crevices or picking at the foibles of the world, their sharp, biting snaps make quick work of their victims. They aren’t exactly cranky—their long song actualIy sounds a bit like laughter, even if cynical. But they don’t seem to have much fun. Like Downy Woodpeckers and Brown Creepers, nuthatches join foraging chickadee flocks, but never learn from the chickadees to lighten up.
Two species of nuthatches live in the Midwest. The tinier Red-breasted Nuthatch is primarily a bird of the northern coniferous forest. spending little time further south except in some winters. The White-breasted Nuthatch is a bird of the hardwood forest. using its sharp beak to hack into acorns and nuts as much as to probe the bark for insects, and lives here year-round. Its favorite fare at typical birdfeeders is sunflower seed, suet, corn, and peanuts, though if it discovers a feeder offering mealworms, it quickly cleans it out, all the while making cranky little “yank yank” notes as if criticizing the service and accommodations even as it gobbles down the food.
This time of year, nuthatches are starting to excavate a nest hole, if they haven’t appropriated an old woodpecker hole, natural cavity, or even birdbox. The pair fashions the nest inside using soft shreds of inner bark and mammal hair–there are many records of them snatching hair from dead rabbits and squirrels. Near farms they’ll also pick up chicken feathers. The female can lay five to ten eggs in a clutch, but eight is the norm. They have about the same life expectancy as golden retrievers, with banded wild ones surviving 9 or even 10 years.
The parents produce only one brood of young each year. They’d probably be way more numerous if they nested two or three times a year like robins do. Perhaps the pairs are just so critical of one another that it takes a full year to let their guard down again.