For the Birds Radio Program: Red-breasted Nuthatches

Original Air Date: Sept. 15, 1997

Laura received a hilarious letter from a listener about wild laughter. (date verified)

(Reworked with minor changes from about 11-6-96.)

Audio missing


Every now and then I get a letter from a listener with a question. One of the funniest and most memorable ever was from a friend who wrote last year:

Dear For the Birds Lady:

Three years ago a friend and I backpacked the Border Route Trail for nine days. It was fall. Everywhere we went, small, feathery beings in the trees laughed at us. Their laughter was incessant, and we soon grew weary of being the butt of their jokes and left the woods.

The following autumn, I was on a solo, 12-day kayaking, hiking trip to Isle Royale. The little nuts followed me everywhere, hatching out each time I landed for night. Still laughing at me.

This fall I paddled from the Gunflint Trail to Ely in a canoe. At every lifting of my canoe over yet another beaver dam, over every hilly portage, in every cold, snowy morning, I heard that sinister laugh.

Why? Why in the fall is there that mocking laughter? Is it just that I’m not supposed to be in the woods in the fall? And why are there so many of these red-colored, masked laughing machines? Are they strictly a fall phenomenon?

Yours truly, RBN Hatch.

My friend was asking about the Red-breasted Nuthatch. This tiny prankster, who looks at the world from an upside-down point of view, sounds whiny to some people, but they’re just listening with their ears upside down. Red-breasted Nuthatches laugh even when days are getting short and blustery northeast winds threaten to dump the first snowflakes on us. Most years Red-breasted Nuthatches can be found year-round in the northland, though we do see a significant migration during some autumns. Last year there were so many pine and spruce cones that they’re spending more time in the woods than at feeders, but they’re out there.

Nuthatches call, of course, even during balmy times, but their little beepings are drowned out by the hundreds of noisy forest songsters in spring and summer. As other species wimp out and abandon the chorus, nuthatches finally get to sing their solos. Now that they’re in the company of their fall feeding flocks, they talk more than they did in spring and summer, when they were consumed with the secretive business of mating and raising babies.

It’s impossible for me to see Red-breasted Nuthatches and not smile. Their tiny stump of a tail, silly beepings, and jolly ways make them popular with serious ornithologists as well. Winsor Merrett Tyler wrote:

These birds seem so happy, animated, and lively and their voices have such a range of expression that they almost talk—a playful gathering of talkative, irrepressible woodland gnomes.

Don’t let their laughter chase you from the woods. Jolly nuthatches never jeer—they cheer.