Top Billing: White-breasted Nuthatch
This topsy-turvy bird has it all backward.
By George Harrison, Contributing Editor
Nuthatch photo by Karen Tippins
When Europeans watched a nervous little bird wedge nuts into tree crevices and hack them open with its long bill, they called it a nuthack. Colonists on American shores saw the same kind of bird doing the same thing, and, as language evolved, the name changed to nuthatch.
The white-breasted nuthatch is the largest and best known of the four North American nuthatches. As I watch them daily in my southeastern Wisconsin backyard, they remind me of feathered circus performers presenting a variety of amusing acts.
While the other backyard birds behave more sedately, white-breasted nuthatches seem to always be on stage, like comedians, acting and entertaining wherever they go.
Especially noticeable is their seemingly ridiculous manner of walking down tree trunks headfirst. While all other birds walk up trees in search of food, the nuthatch does the exact opposite.
In this flip-flopped mode, aided by strong claws that keep it from falling, the nuthatch has access to insects, eggs and larvae tucked into the top sides of tree bark, hidden from the view of birds that shimmy up trees.
Their upside-down feeding behavior caught the eye of Karen Carlsen, a Birds & Blooms Field Editor in Elgin, Oregon.
"One winter, while taking pictures of my busy bird feeder, I noticed a white-breasted nuthatch high on the trunk of a pine tree," she says. "With an apparent disregard for the laws of gravity, this little scrap of a bird began descending the trunk headfirst."
As Karen continued to watch, she saw a tiny brown creeper at the bottom of the tree, inching up the trunk in a jerky, spiral manner.
"I watched as both birds mined the bark for insects," Karen says. "I was suddenly struck by the fact that these birds were both fashioned for the same purpose, but in a totally different way. The brown creeper finds insects from the bottom, looking up; the white-breasted nuthatch approaches the tree from the top, looking down. Between the two of them, I'd say they cover the insects pretty well...as long as they don't collide somewhere in the middle."
But their trademark upside-down feature is just a warm-up to other, less understood behavior, such as their bill-sweeping performance. That's when a nuthatch sways from side to side, sweeping its bill in a motion so exaggerated that the bird's whole body moves to and fro.
I've seen this act staged at the entrance to the bird's nesting cavity, as though it is sweeping off the front steps. A male I observed sweeping had food in his bill, presumably meant for the female that was inside the cavity incubating eggs. Some people believe that it may have to do with the protection of the nest from predators such as squirrels.
Another unique nuthatch stunt is the white-breasted's courtship dance, which includes sound effects. Throughout the year, I hear the nasal "yank, yank, yank" call of both males and females that sounds like the toot of a little toy horn.
Starting in early January, I also hear a totally different "whi, whi, whi" call, which is the male's spring courtship song. That's when I see the pair engage in their courtship dance, initiated when the female responds to the male's song by swaying side-to-side until he floats down to her, like a parachute, with his wings and tail spread.
Landing next to her, he puffs up his colorful feathers, as if to say, "Take a look at me."
Despite their strange behavior, or maybe because of it, white-breasted nuthatches always seems to be in a hurry, as if they are late for their next performance. If that's true, they're always well dressed and groomed for any such eventuality. (Males and females look alike, though a close examination will reveal that the male's cap is deeper black than the female's).
The nuthatch's feeder behavior, much like the black-capped chickadee, with which it associates most of the year, is to take one sunflower seed at a time, and fly to a nearby tree to crack it open. But instead of holding it between its feet, like a chickadee does, it will wedge the seed into a piece of tree bark.
The bird quickly consumes the seed meat, and in a flash it's back to the feeder for another seed. And so it goes for half a dozen trips before the bird zips off to another backyard, presumably to its next performance.
Always in Motion
I watched a nuthatch pair raise a brood in a hollowed-out limb scar, about 10 feet up the trunk of a sugar maple tree along the lake road I walk every morning. My daily observations started with the female carrying bark shreds into the hole in May, and ended with the fledging of the gawky youngsters in late June.
Though I could not see inside, I assumed that the female laid about eight eggs and then incubated them for 12 days while the male faithfully fed her, sometimes sweeping the front door en route. Both parents became very busy after the eggs hatched, carrying food into the cavity every few minutes, sometimes both arriving at the same time.
And what a clamor there was when the young left the cavity. It was as if little toy horns were tooting from every corner of the neighborhood. Clearly, the whole family was now in the act.