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Nature's Notebook - Nuthatch

Surely one of the most iconic and familiar birds of our region is the

white-breasted nuthatch . As our weather turns the corner from late fall into early winter and the last leaves fall from the trees, this adorable "upside-down bird" seems to grow more conspicuous.


The nuthatch is essentially a forest bird that has, however, become equally at home in suburbs and in more forested areas such as ours. In summer it nests in tree cavities. Its characteristic foraging behavior — climbing upside-down and probing crevices of tree bark for grubs and insects with its chisel-like bill — is a clever adaptation that allows it to exploit a food niche that few other birds utilize.

Feeders are also an inducement to nuthatches. Lacking a seed-cracking bill, however, the nuthatch will take a seed to a nearby perch, hold it between its toes, and hammer it open with its bill to get the nut. This may be the origin of the name "nuthatch."

The white-breasted nuthatch is a common year-round resident across much of North America. The smaller

red-breasted nuthatch (mentioned in this column two weeks ago) is also widespread but has a more northerly range; it is thus more prone to migrations. While white-breasteds are fairly consistent throughout the year, red-breasteds often appear in substantial numbers in some years and are harder to find in others.


The white-breasted nuthatch has a range of vocalizations, the most common being a rather harsh, two-syllable "yank-yank." In contrast, the red-breasted’s "yank-yank" is tinnier, more nasal and higher pitched; it is often compared to the sound of a toy horn. The two species differ noticeably in plumage. Besides having reddish underparts, the red-breasted has a sharp black line through the eye.

One other bird that breeds but does not winter in our region shares the nuthatch’s upside-down behavior. Can you guess what it is? The answer is below.

Fred Baumgarten is a naturalist and writer. He can be reached at fredb58@sbcglobal.net. His blog is at thatbirdblog.blogspot.com. 




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