We have two members of the nuthatch family here in the Quoddy region: the White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinsis, and the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis. The Red-breasted is the smaller of the two birds and the most common as it prefers to forage on coniferous trees, while the larger White-breasted generally prefers a more open forest with deciduous trees for its restaurant. The red breast of the smaller nuthatch may fade in late summer, but it always has a dark line through its eye, which is a positive way of differentiating it from its larger cousin.
Nuthatches may act like woodpeckers but they are not closely related. All of our woodpeckers have feet with two toes in the front and two in the rear, and the tail of a woodpecker is relatively longer and used as a brace while feeding. Woodpeckers always face up the tree, and I have even seen them sleeping attached to the side of a tree. Nuthatches have feet like the rest of the perching birds with three toes in the front and one in the rear. They have a short tail, and the tail serves no purpose in their scampering around a tree, and nuthatches can easily maneuver sideways or up or down a tree, although they do prefer going down a tree headfirst.
In that manner, ornithologists note, nuthatches get a different perspective of a tree than a woodpecker, and while they may feed on the same type of stuff, this adaptation lessens the competition between the two types of birds. A typical flock of winter birds in the forest around here generally consists of the following with the most common first: Chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, Golden-crowned Kinglets and a Downy woodpecker or two. When that inquisitive crowd comes through, a poor, unsuspecting, hibernating geometer has a very slim chance of survival.
Only some of the many Red-breasted nuthatches at our feeders now are native. There are reports of a large irruptive migration of nuthatches across the continental US this season, as the cone production in the northern forest was only fair, and the number of birds that survived the previous year was quite high. Apparently Mother Nature does play dice with her offspring, and decided a little stress was due, and in response to the lack of cones the birds headed south, and I have heard that some of our Red-breasted Nuthatches have been seen as far south as Alabama.
Even the Red-breasted Nuthatches from away are very trusting, and the local birds can be very tame, and easily be trained to eat sunflower seeds from your hand. Red-breasted Nuthatches sound so appreciative when they are feeding, but this half ounce bird can throw its weight around if another bird imposes on its territory, and is capable of quickly relating his feelings to the intruder. However, a piece of suet and some black oil sunflower seeds will calm down even the crankiest nuthatch.
Nuthatches are cavity nesting birds, but don’t have good equipment to build a hole in a sound tree. They will work in soft rotted wood, borrow an abandoned woodpecker hole or occasionally use a birdhouse. Around here they nest in May or June, and even though the cycle from laying their eggs to fledging the new birds is only about a month, there is only one brood per year. They are the only bird I know that employs a defense system on their nest, and around the entrance to their cavity they will smear some spruce or balsam sap. How or why they do this escapes me. Maybe they don’t want any visiting caterpillars.