Lively as windup toys, nuthatches pirouette on branches and descend headfirst down tree trunks, combing the bark for insects. Divided into four species, these short-tailed song birds are found almost anywhere in North America where there are trees. Easily drawn to see and suet at feeders, especially in colder weather, nuthatches’ nasal bleats are a familiar part of our backyard soundtrack. But common does not mean mundane! Nuthatches possess some fascinating eccentricities.
Readily identified by its white underside, gray back and shiny black cap, the White-breasted Nuthatch ranges across most of the United States and southern Canada. The largest of its tribe, the White-breasted Nuthatch can seem downright gluttonous, as it flies onto a feeder, grabs a seed, and then returns again and again for more. In fact, the White-breasted is a miser that stashes seeds in bark crevices. With a little patient observation, it is easy to locate the bird’s storehouses.
Sporting a distinct orange belly and white eye-stripe, the smaller Red-breasted Nuthatch replaces the white-breasted in northern forests and western mountains. The Red-breasted nests in tree cavities (as do all nuthatches) or man-made nest boxes. Like its White-breasted cousin, the Red-breasted improves its homestead by narrowing the entrance hole with mud and smearing the area with sticky stuff, such as sap, which probably serves as a predator guard. The bird itself avoids this mess by shooting straight as an arrow into the nest hole.
Native to the Far West, the plain-gray Pygmy Nuthatch is easy to overlook. But its peculiar domestic arrangements make it an unusual bird. When raising and feeding their young, Pygmy Nuthatch parents rely on “helpers”, who may be their own young from an earlier brood or even “surplus” males. This unusual avian behavior is comparable to human bachelors volunteering to change diapers.
The tiny Brown-headed Nuthatch of the southeastern United States also employs nesting “helpers”. But it one-ups the Pygmy Nuthatch in an astonishing way – the Brown-headed Nuthatch is one of the very few North American birds with a talent for tools. Gripping a chunk of bark in its bill, the bird pries up pine bark in pursuit of a meal.
The nuthatch is an intriguing neighbor with, perhaps, more to reveal so feel free to spy on the delightful birds – they won’t mind at all.