Birds of the Glebe, White-breasted Nuthatch

The White-breasted nuthatch, one of the most common birds in North America, is a year-round urban resident. They are readily recognized by their ability to walk both up and down a tree trunk.   Photo: Jeanette Rive

By Jeanette Rive

If you were a bird, how would you protect the entrance to your nest from predators? If you are a Red-breasted nuthatch, your nest is in a tree cavity with a small hole for an entrance. You’d collect some sticky pine or spruce sap and paint it around the edge, either using your bill or a small piece of bark as a paint brush. Larger birds, squirrels and other small predatory mammals such as weasels are deterred by the sticky resin and keep away, allowing the little nuthatch to slip into and out of its nest. The White-breasted nuthatch, a common year-round resident in our urban gardens, wipes strips of bark, leaves or crushed insects around the mouth of its nest – perhaps predators are deterred by the smell of dead bugs!

The White-breasted nuthatch is one of the most common birds of North America. It’s a little larger than the chickadee, about 15 cm long and weighing some 20 grams. Nuthatches do not migrate; in winter, you can often see them with flocks of chickadees – there is safety in numbers. Birds recognize each other’s warning signals when there is danger, and they also help each other to find food. Like the chickadee, White-breasted nuthatches cache their food, but they aren’t as efficient as chickadees in remembering where they cache it! Nuthatches take a seed from the feeder, fly up into a tree, jam the seed into a crevice and hammer at it with its strong bill to crack the seed open. This is referred to as “hacking.” This may be how the nuthatch got its name, though some birders believe it comes from the bird “hatching” the seed from its coat. The male and female look quite similar, but the male is quite aggressive and will shove the female aside at a feeder to get at the food. When foraging in pairs, the male often scans the area for food while the female looks out for predators.

Nuthatches have a unique ability to travel both up and down a tree trunk. You’ll often see them creeping down a trunk headfirst, which is why they’ve been nicknamed the “upside down bird.” Most birds, including woodpeckers, only go in one direction, upward. Nuthatches don’t use their tails for support but have a very strong rear-facing claw, called a hallux, with which they hold on to the tree while moving downwards. It also means they can forage for insects and spiders in both directions, doubling their chance for success!

During the non-breeding season, lone nuthatches will roost in tree cavities at night or take shelter behind some loose bark. They like to keep their roosting area clean by removing their feces in the mornings.

Nuthatches are monogamous and will often be seen in pairs. They are quite territorial and protect the area where they find food.

Courtship displays start at the end of winter – the male raises his head high, drops his wings, sways back and forth and bows deeply. To impress his prospective mate even more, he brings her gifts of food. The nest is often an abandoned woodpecker tree cavity which the female lines with grasses and twigs. Between five and nine eggs are laid, then incubated by the female for about 12 to 14 days. When hatched, both parents feed their young. If the parents feel threatened by a predator, they spread their wings wide to make themselves look bigger to intimidate a predator. Only one brood a year is hatched.

As for other birds that don’t spend the winter here, the migratory season has now started again, and birds that have spent the summer breeding in the north will be starting their trip south. Keep an eye out for unusual birds in the garden and at the feeders!

Jeanette Rive is a Glebe bird enthusiast and Glebe Report proofreader.

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