Nuthatches, Bird Acrobats

Learn where and how to spot the four species of nuthatches found in North America.

Every budding birder remembers the first time they saw one. Do you recall the sheer joy and excitement?  You were probably just getting to know the basics of your local fliers. Then along came a little bird defying gravity as it walked down a tree headfirst. No, it wasn’t your imagination. It was a nuthatch!

It takes up to 18 days for white-breasted  nuthatches to excavate a hole for their nests.  Other tree-climbing birds, like woodpeckers, brace themselves with stiff tail feathers as they hitch their way up a trunk. But nuthatches, which have very short tails, hold on entirely with strong legs and toes, keeping a firm grip as they clamber up, down and around trunks, branches and twigs. Astonishingly acrobatic, they can get to places on a tree that no other bird can reach, seeking out insects hidden in the bark or in crevices of dead limbs.

The nuthatch family includes about 20 species worldwide, most in Europe and Asia. Only four species live in North America, but they are among our most distinctive and delightful birds, full of personality, always entertaining to watch. And because they’re so widespread, chances to watch them are available almost everywhere.

From coast to coast, and from southern Canada to Georgia and Arizona, the white-breasted nuthatch is a backyard bird for millions of people. It’s easy to recognize, too, with a strong pattern of black and white and blue-gray. It also has bold black eyes in a plain white face, giving it a perky expression.  Often you hear its nasal yank-yank before you see the bird. Males will extend this yank call into a song by repeating it rapidly, six to 10 times, especially on mornings in late winter. They’re a treat to hear not only because they sound cheerful and musical, but because they remind us that spring is just around the corner.

White-breasted nuthatches favor large shade trees, like oaks, maples and hickories, and will even live in city parks where the trees are tall. They quickly learn the locations of bird feeders, becoming regular and welcome visitors.  These are fairly sociable birds—but not with one another. After their young can fend for themselves, in late summer, it’s unusual to see more than one or two white-breasted nuthatches at a time. But they often join roving flocks of chickadees, titmice, downy woodpeckers and other small birds traveling through the treetops in the winter woods. They are mostly permanent residents, so if you can attract them to your yard, you can enjoy them all year.

From their looks and their choice of trees, the brown-headed nuthatch and the pygmy nuthatch could almost be identical twins. Both are tiny, with gray backs and brown caps (just a little grayer on the pygmy nuthatch), and both are fond of pine trees. But they find their pines in very different surroundings. Brown-headed nuthatches thrive in the steamy lowlands of the Deep South, while pygmy nuthatches occupy the cool mountain forests of the West.

If you’re lucky enough to see one of these little nuthatches, you’ll probably see several, because they live in small flocks or family groups for most of the year. Active and talkative, they make little squeaky noises as they clamber about on pinecones, dangle upside down from the ends of twigs, or run up and down tree trunks. These birds are so faithful to their favorite trees that they rarely stray from them. So even if you live in the range of either the brown-headed or the pygmy nuthatch, don’t expect to see them unless you go to a pine forest. If no such forest is nearby, planting native pines in your yard may entice them to visit you.

While the three species mentioned so far rarely cover much distance, red-breasted nuthatches are migrants. They spend summers in the spruce forests of the far north and the high mountains, often staying in those same forests all winter as well. But in the autumn of some years, they stage genuine invasions, pouring out of the boreal forests and heading south, winding up as much as a thousand miles from their nesting grounds. When an invasion of red-breasted nuthatches is under way, you might see them just about anywhere. They prefer evergreens if they can find them, and often they will spend the whole winter in a grove of pines or spruces. They may be hard to spot in such dense surroundings; we usually locate them by listening for their soft, nasal calls. But keep those feeders stocked and ready to go. You never know when you might spot an upside-down, acrobatic visitor in your backyard.

Best Ways to Attract Nuthatches

Try a tree. There’s no getting around it: Nuthatches love trees, and they’re not likely to be found far away from them. If you’re going to plant, consider native oaks, maples, hickories, pines  or spruces.

Keep your feeder stocked. Our two most widespread nuthatches, white-breasted and red-breasted, are both very frequent visitors to bird feeders, with a wide range of tastes. They seem equally attracted to suet mixtures and to seeds, like black oil sunflower seed, and will also eat peanuts.

Help provide nesting site. Nuthatches nest in holes in trees, which they usually dig themselves—either finding a spot in soft dead wood or enlarging an existing hole. So if you can leave some dead limbs on your trees, the nuthatches may use them as nest sites. Sometimes they’ll use nest boxes; a box designed for bluebirds or wrens will be about the right size.

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