If you walk through the woods this time of year and off in the distance you hear what sounds like honking toy cars, you have just entered the world of nuthatches. Find a rock or fallen trunk to sit on, or a tree to lean against, and simply wait. Quietly. Chances are the nuthatches will continue to slowly come towards you and with them comes all sorts of …. well, friends and associates. If you are quiet and motionless – and lucky –you will be surrounded by a winter foraging flock of
small songbirds. And some – especially the chickadees – can be down at your eye level. And many will be softly calling to each other to keep in touch.
The main birds in these flocks are White-breasted Nuthatches, Black-capped Chickadees, and Tufted Titmice – and all three species call during the winter. These loose flocks slowly move through their winter foraging territory each day. And with them are often DownyWoodpeckers, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Redbreasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers (generally only 1), and possibly a few Yellow-rumped Warblers. And there are often birds that are not part of this loosely formed flock but are close-by – within hearing distance. Birds like Carolina Wrens, Juncos, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and Blue Jays. And there can be a Sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s Hawk.
White-breasted Nuthatches are often a large part of these winter flocks and always far outnumber the Red-breasted Nuthatches here in central Illinois. The Red-breasteds nest mainly in Canada and only spend winters with us and if they are in these winter flocks, it is often only one or two.
Nuthatches are simply fascinating birds beginning with their name. According to one piece of bird lore, their name ‘nuthatch’ is a variation of ‘nut-hack’. ‘Nuthack’ comes from the description of how this bird eats seeds. You can observe this at a feeder – binoculars help. A nuthatch will come to a feeder and poke through the seeds you have offered – it generally does not take the first seed it touches. You might even see the bird pick up several seeds and discard them before making the final choice. This has been compared to us shopping for melon in the produce section of a grocery store.
Rarely does the first melon we touch go into the shopping cart. We sniff and flick and look at the stem. A nuthatch will sometimes shake the seed and roll it around a bit. A guess is there are certain characteristics it is looking for that indicate it is fresh and easier to open.
Once the nuthatch makes its choice, it will fly to a branch or trunk of a nearby tree and wedge the seed into the bark and start ‘hacking’ at it with its sharply pointed beak until the seed breaks open and the bird can eat what is inside. And the bird does not always use bark to do the wedging – any place a seed can be wedged will work – a small crack or space in your deck, roof, and the sides of your house are often places of choice. If you are up early on a winter morning and hear rapping on
your house, do not assume it is a woodpecker – it may be an enterprising nuthatch cracking open breakfast.
Another piece of bird lore says this is not how the bird got its name at all – that its name came about because nuthatches place nuts in their nests to incubate and hatch instead of laying eggs. These tales passed down from generation to generation are often interesting but not always logical. And this one would be an example because if it was true, there would be many fewer nuthatches than there are – possibly even no nuthatches. But I do not doubt it is possible nuthatches place nuts within their nesting cavities. Nuthatches do eat nuts and so this would be food for the incubating female.
And that does make sense because nuthatches are one of the bird world’s best at caching food. Probably a third of the seeds taken by a nuthatch from your feeder are hidden for later consumption. And ornithologists have discovered that although many birds do this,
nuthatches are by far the best at remembering where all their hidden food is.
But the most fascinating aspect of these birds for me is they can effortlessly eat upside down – and they do this all the time. In fact, White-breasted Nuthatches are most often upside-down on trees – eating as they go. Red-breasted Nuthatches also do this but will perch on branches from time to time – more often than the White-breasted. And as all nuthatches travel head-first down a tree, they will pause and arch their necks so their beaks are parallel to the ground – this is unique behavior to nuthatches.
So bundle up, sling your binoculars around your neck, and take a walk in the woods or a tree-filled
neighborhood or park, listen for honking toy cars and then look for upside-down nuthatches on tree trunks and branches. Happy birding!
By Linda Spence
Photos by Jim Oettel