The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 2, Chapter 5: Meet the Nuthatches, the Upside-Down Birds

Dear Wood Folk,

The general consensus is that the name nuthatch refers to these bird folk wedging their food into crevices for safe keeping. Especially this time of year (winter), I spend a great deal of time outside watching both the chickadees and the red-breasted (sitta canadensis) and white-breasted nuthatches (sitta carolinensis) hiding birdseed in the trees.

The nuthatches are the birds that you’ll often catch upside-down, going down a tree headfirst, or walking upside down across the underside of a branch. Likely amongst a flock of chickadees, perhaps with downy woodpeckers, usually one or a pair of each type of nuthatch can be found around winter birdfeeders in Haliburton. These species are our main, reliable winter “foraging guild” or “feeding guild”. There’s safety in numbers. There are at least 30 other bird species that hang around our area in the winter, and a fair chunk of them would predate a nuthatch.

Like chickadees, but with a little more patience (especially with the bigger, shyer white-breasted), they may also feed from your hand.

White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted Nuthatch

Interestingly, these two types of nuthatches are opposites in some ways.

White-Breasted Nuthatch Plant Allies

White-breasted Nuthatch
Rusty Spotted Behind of White-breasted Nuthatch

Look at that booty! My favorite dappled derriere of bird kind. The white-breasted nuthatch favors mature deciduous woods and woodland edges. Our basswood, maple and oak trees amongst their favorites, they can also be found among the conifers in our mixed forests.

Unlike red-breasted nuthatches and chickadees, they rarely excavate their own nesting site from scratch. They usually pick natural tree cavities or abandoned holes in their preferred deciduous trees, or the occasional conifer. The couple may reuse the same cavity year after year.

The female builds a nest within the cavity made of bark, grasses and twigs. She lines it with soft materials like shredded bark, feathers and fur. Dirt and mud might also be used in the construction. At the entrance the pair “sweeps” sticky fur, plant matter or more often, smelly insect guts and bits. Apparently in a rouse to mask their scent from predators. I suppose not even a hungry squirrel wishes to smell like stinkbug.

Like the rest of our winter feeder guild, white-breasted nuthatches eat mainly insects. But in the winter over half their diet may come from seeds and nuts. They’ll eat acorns from oak, nuts and seeds from the likes of beech, birch and hawthorn. Flower-wise they seek seeds from asters, and black-eyed Susans and sunflowers – all of which you can grow here on their behalf, though mostly spent by winter. When hiding their food, they might disguise their cache with bark, lichen or moss.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch Plant Allies

Red-breasted nuthatches prefer coniferous woods: fir, larch/tamarack (oft used for telephone poles), hemlock, pine and spruce, and also our soft wooded deciduous aspens and poplars. Opposite their white-breasted relations! And on a familiar note they’ll also play in forests of birch, maple, oak, etc. Here in our mixed woods we find them together in the wintertime, but their preferences may separate them more during breeding season.

Red-breasted Nuthatches
Red-breasted Nuthatches

For they prefer conifers when it comes to nesting as well. As they tend to use dead wood for their homes, you may be more likely to find them setting up their home in mature woods.

While neither type of nuthatch tend toward birdhouses, red-breasted nuthatches are even less likely to move into some preexisting cavity. They are prone to excavate their own instead. Nests are usually built in completely dead trees or dead branches. The male may help more with this excavation. The female builds a nest of bark strips, grasses and pine needles within the cavity. She lines it with soft shredded bark, fur, feathers, perhaps fine grasses, even mosses.

Perhaps for the same reason white-breasted nuthatches smear insects on their entryway, the red-breasted carries pitch from pine or spruce to smear on the entrance of its nest cavity. Sometimes they use a piece of bark as the tool to carry and apply it! There may be other reasons of an antimicrobial nature?

In the winter when there are less insects they eat more conifer seeds. But I’ve seen them inhaling conifer seeds at other times of the year. They give the love back to the conifers too – they will feast on spruce budworm as it attacks the trees. They’ll eat seeds and nuts from beech, fir, hazelnut, oak, pine, spruce, etc., when they aren’t scouring as many insects as they can off of these same plant allies.

How to Attract Nuthatches

Fill your hopper, tube and platform feeders with shelled peanut pieces, sunflower seeds (they somewhat prefer pre-shelled), peanut butter, suet, and/or mealworms. Keep in mind peanut butter may attract rodents and weasels perhaps more so than the seed and nuts alone would. To the point of baiting.

On your property, leave dead trees standing. Planting any of the trees, shrubs and flowers mentioned throughout this article will help attract nuthatches. And keeping your lot insect friendly is a vital step, especially if you want to see them Spring through Autumn (don’t spray any -cides if you can help it, let your yard go wild, plant native, etc!)

Bird roost boxes are helpful for shelter from predators if you have the rare yard here with no close by mature trees for fast cover. Nuthatches will also use birdbaths and are attracted to features like oscillating sprinklers.

Next month we’ll meet the Northern Flicker, chosen because of the red heart on the back of its head and it being a few days after Valentine’s day and all. Hope to see you then!

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