For the Birds Radio Program: White-breasted Nuthatch
One of my favorite feeder birds, handsome and elegant despite its topsy-turvy life, is the White-breasted Nuthatch. I’ve been taken with this species since I first ran into it on April 29, 1975, at Fenner Arboretum in East Lansing, Michigan. It was so exciting to see something I’d seen pictured in my Golden field guide but couldn’t imagine in real life—an upside down bird. The bird I first saw was positioned exactly as the field guide showed, except that its herky jerky movements made the upside-down posture somehow more understandable.
There are a lot of insects in the bark of trees. Birds apparently are more effective at getting them when they can specialize, maybe using something of a search pattern. Nuthatches specialize in looking down on the upper edges of bark, finding insects that woodpeckers, chickadees, and creepers probably overlook. They also wedge hard food items or those with hard shells into crevices to hold in place while they chisel them with their beaks.
The nuthatch habit of switching back and forth in their jerky way is made easier by their severely reduced tail. Compared to other birds that climb on tree trunks, nuthatches have legs spread farther apart, and a longer hallux—the toe that faces backwards. These modifications replace the stiff, bracing tail feathers of woodpeckers and creepers.
Thanks to their short tail, nuthatches are surprisingly easy to identify in flight, and our two eastern species can then be distinguished by size. This year there were bazillions of Red-breasted Nuthatches flying past Hawk Ridge, but very few White-breasteds. White-breasted Nuthatches take seeds as well as insects, but don’t specialize on the kinds of boom or bust food crops associated with northern coniferous forests that their more diminutive relative does. White-breasted Nuthatches are more associated with deciduous forests, and in particular with hardwoods. They join winter chickadee feeding flocks, but seem to hang around the edges rather than in the thick of things. Their winter food resources are greatly enhanced when there are bird feeders in their areas.
In mid-winter, when woodpeckers are starting to drum, male White-breasted Nuthatches start making their song. It’s not a very musical production, but females find it highly romantic in a nuthatch sort of way. Pairs tend to maintain their bond year-round, but have a strictly platonic relationship except during the breeding season. Considering how very common these backyard birds are, there is a surprising lack of data about their courtship and breeding. Usually they nest in natural cavities or woodpecker holes, though some individuals adapt to using nest boxes. Apparently White-breasted Nuthatches don’t excavate their own cavities. There is some data, and I personally have watched, pairs of Red-breasted Nuthatches excavating their own cavities, but this is apparently one of many ways that the two species are different.
Now that days are growing longer, we can expect to hear more and more White-breasted Nuthatch songs. Even when snow is flying and temperatures are well below freezing, it’s lovely to see concrete evidence of the coming spring.