For the Birds Radio Program: White-breasted Nuthatch

Original Air Date: Jan. 24, 2003 (estimated date)

White-breasted Nuthatches remind Laura of children who never notice airplanes or birds in the sky, but are first to discover a shiny penny or interesting caterpillar on the ground.

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Transcript

The white-breasted nuthatch looks at life from an upside-down perspective as it works its way down tree trunks, peeking into crevices of bark other birds miss. Nuthatches adapt to their topsy-turvy world from the start. When I used to rehabilitate birds, I once cared for two tiny nestling nuthatches after their nest tree was cut down. I made them a little substitute nest in a small plastic container lined with tissues. Most nestlings perch in this kind of nest with their faces up and out, but these little nuthatches perches with their little rear-ends sticking up, their faces down. They’re like the children who never notice airplanes or birds flying high in the sky, but are first to discover the shiny penny or the interesting caterpillar on the ground.

These handsome birds, with their pure white cheeks and undersides, bluish backs and black caps, rusty sides, and beady eyes, are one of the easiest of all birds to recognize, simply because of that unique habit of clinging to tree trunks upside down. They’re surprisingly common, living in practically every neighborhood of the Twin Cities area, but like many birds, often go unnoticed. When noted author John Kieran was a young man teaching elementary school, he read in school one day about the white-breasted nuthatch. The description said that this bird is “known to every farm boy and girl,” but he had never even imagined such a creature before. Yet, the very next morning, after sleeping in his backyard:

As I lay there I noticed something moving on the trunk of the tree. The moving object was, to my utter amazement, the mysterious bird “known to every farm boy and girl, the aforesaid White-breasted Nuthatch of the Nature Study leaflet-and it was moving down the tree headfirst! I reared up on my cot to have a better look at this phenomenon and my sudden movement caught the bird’s attention so that it paused in its downward journey to twist its head to stare at me, which put it momentarily in the exact pose of the bird in the picture that the Department of Education had forced upon me. … I decided to look into matter immediately. It was nearly a mile from our farmhouse to the school and, on the way that morning, I kept my eyes open with astonishing results. I saw four more of these birds going up or down the trunks of trees! By the time I reached the school I realized that I had been practically blind for twenty years.

White-breasted nuthatches often associate with chickadees, and share their bold curiosity. Every morning I put a handful of mealworms into a bowl in a feeder outside my office window. Within seconds, usually before I can even close the window again, a white­ breasted nuthatch or a chickadee has already alighted in the bowl and is choosing the plumpest morsel for breakfast. There are two nuthatches in my flock, and over a dozen chickadees, yet a nuthatch arrives first at least as often as a chickadee does.

Nuthatches also eat sunflower seeds and suet at feeding stations. Their chisel-shaped beak can hack open acorns and even walnuts, and they also feed on a wide assortment of insects. White-breasted nuthatches even eat army worms, which are too hairy for many birds to eat.

The typical call of white-breasted nuthatches is a cranky-sounding “yank yank.” As days grow longer, even while winter has us in its grip, the nuthatches will start singing. Of course, “song” as an ornithological term referring to courtship vocalizations doesn’t require a sound to be musical. The rapid 6-noted song reminds many of a pileated woodpecker call. It may not be ethereal music to our ears, but female nuthatches find it highly romantic and it gets the job done, guaranteeing plenty of new little nuthatches to delight those of us who take time to notice.