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Speaking of Nature

Sleek, snarky nuthatches dash down trees headfirst

Sunday, December 29, 2013
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Speaking of Nature


This male white-breasted nuthatch, visiting a suet feeder, has struck the iconic “head down” pose for which nuthatches are so famous.
This male white-breasted nuthatch, visiting a suet feeder, has struck the iconic “head down” pose for which nuthatches are so famous.

One of my favorite feeder visitors is the white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). I should probably qualify that description by admitting that any bird that visits my home is a “favorite bird” of mine, but I have a particular affinity for nuthatches that I can’t quite explain.

I know that they are just as aggressive and successful as any of the other birds, but to me the nuthatch has a quality of innocence that I find quite endearing.

The name “nuthatch” was given to this group because they often exhibit the trait of hacking open seeds and nuts with their bills. Specifically, “hatch” is a corruption of the word “hack.”

In my personal library I have a marvelous three-volume set of books on British birds. Dated 1856, this set describes the nuthatch and then goes on to list the alternate names nuthack and nutjobber for our white-breasted nuthatch’s European cousin. I like the name nutjobber even better than nuthatch!

European species

There are 22 species of nuthatches worldwide, with the majority being found in northern Europe. The first Europeans to set foot in the New World would have had no trouble recognizing the American counterpart of their beloved nuthatch, and they were probably thrilled to find that there was more than one species to look for. In the U.S. there are four species, but only two (the white-breasted and red-breasted) are found in the Northeast.

Identifying a nuthatch is easy if you remember the shape of its body. The white-breasted nuthatch reminds me of a dart; its long, thin bill comes to a pinpoint, and its body is long and sleek. These little guys look like the sports cars of the bird world. Even when they are standing still they look like they are going 80 mph, and when they finally do move it is effortless and quick.

With a body length of 6 inches and a wingspan of 9 inches, the white-breasted nuthatch is the largest of the four North American nuthatches. The sexes look very similar, but with practice and experience you can learn to differentiate between them. The key difference is in the feathers of the cap. Males have jet-black feathers, whereas the females are more of a charcoal-gray color.

Which way up?

Even without these obvious clues, identifying this bird would be very easy on the basis of its behavior alone. They can run down a tree trunk headfirst, and it is not unusual to find them perched effortlessly on the bottom of a tree limb, completely oblivious to the fact that they are upside down.

These climbing abilities are derived from the favorite foods of the nuthatch. In the warmer months, this species searches almost exclusively for insects and spiders that can be found hiding in the nooks and crannies of rough-barked trees. Nuthatches, with their remarkable talent for climbing down a tree trunk headfirst, are particularly good at finding their prey in those secret spots that face the sky.

In the winter, when seeds from birdfeeders are plentiful, nuthatches can even be seen storing seeds in the same secret places.

If you want to encourage nuthatches at your own feeding stations, focus your attention on two different foods. First, sunflower seeds are very attractive to nuthatches. Second, these birds also appreciate suet.

If you put out either of these treats, make sure that they are close enough to your house that you will have a chance of seeing the birds that visit. Nuthatches can be quite sneaky and might go unnoticed otherwise.

Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.

 
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