Quoddy Nature Notes – Red-breasted Nuthatch

by Fred Gralenski

Red-breasted Nuthatch on a suet feeder (bait bag from a lobster trap).

Even though I dearly love the Black-capped Chickadee, the Maine State Bird, I think the Red- breasted Nuthatch is my favorite winter bird.  The nuthatch sounds so contented when he’s on the bird feeder  and telling the world how lucky he is, with his nasal, “nyank, Nyank, NYANK!” and subsequent twittering.  How does a tiny bird make a nasal sound?  That’s one of the interesting mysteries the animal world.  Another mystery is how quickly this contented bird can make a loud untranslatable squawk at some other bird that he deems is trespassing in his space.  I think we are pretty fortunate that feistiness is often inversely proportional to size.

We have two kinds of nuthatches here in the Quoddy region: the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis, and the White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis.  From their scientific names one can  correctly guess that the Red-breasted is the more northerly of the two species, and is more common in coniferous forests.  The White-breasted Nuthatch is bigger, but sometime the Red-breasted Nuthatch is mistaken for a White-breasted if its colors have faded in late winter.  An unmistakable trait of the Red-breasted is the dark line through its eye.  Nuthatches are pretty acrobatic birds and prefer to forage on trees upside down, and work down headfirst from higher up.  All woodpeckers and the Brown Creeper check out trees by going up, and they can’t come down headfirst.  It is thought by some ornithologists that this ability gives Nuthatches a little different perspective of the bark of a tree and they might find food that a woodpecker has missed.  The climbing ability of both types of birds is an interesting study in dynamics that has never been completely explained to me.  Most woodpeckers have two toes facing forward and two toes facing back and they keep their feet side by side and when holding onto a tree lean back on their stiff tails.  Woodpeckers move with a jerking motion, but keep the same stance.  This indicates that they must sort of jump forward, and the instant before they release their grip on the tree, their tail tilts them forward. They still must have to reach out and grasp the tree, and the distance traveled per jump is pretty short.  Nuthatches have it a little more complicated, as they don’t rest on their tail.  As a matter of fact, they have hardly any tail at all.  To compensate for this when foraging they keep one foot a little ahead of the other and the rear foot acts like the tail of a woodpecker, but with the added feature that it can grip. The Nuthatch then can fight gravity with its strong legs in either the head up or head down position.  Our Nuthatches usually stay around here all winter but may move if the food supply gets too low.  This time of year Nuthatches are usually in the company of Chickadees and a Downy or so and sometimes an erratic Brown Creeper.  I used to see them with Golden-crowned Kinglets, but Kinglets don’t seem to be as common as they once were.  Red-breasted Nuthatches readily come to feeders and love sunflower seeds and suet.  Nuthatches haven’t learned to hold a sunflower seed to a branch with their feet and whack at it like chickadees. They wedge the seed under a piece of bark then whack at it there.  Nuthatches also store seeds for future use.  They store these under bark or in stumps or any place handy, and somehow remember most of these hiding places.

By early May the Red-breasted nuthatches will pair up and make a small cavity in a dead tree and start to raise a new generation.  Just outside of the cavity entrance the nuthatch usually smears pitch from a pine or spruce, apparently to deter predators or any other unwelcome company.  They supposedly will nest in birdhouses, but I’ve never seen any evidence of this in the many birdhouses I have put up.  But I’ll try again this year.

Watch the Blue Jays feeding each other.  This is a sign of courtship, as is their call.  Listen for the ‘squeaky clothesline’ call.