(Transcript of today's For the Birds program)
Every summer, one or two pairs of Red-breasted Nuthatches nest in my neighborhood. In August, this handful of birds is joined by plenty of others. Suddenly their adorably whiny little calls come from my trees just about all day every day. They’re very curious, and quickly discover the little feeder on my upstairs window, which I fill a couple of times a day with mealworms. At first the nuthatches defer to the bigger chickadees, but as they work out my habits and those of the individual chickadees, they become bolder about flying into my hand before I can even get the mealworms into the feeder.
These feisty little birds are very sturdy and able to fly long distances. Indeed, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is the only North American nuthatch to have crossed the Atlantic to Europe as a vagrant.
There are two nuthatches in the northland. The larger of the two, the White-breasted Nuthatch, is more associated with hardwood trees, has beady black eyes set off within its white face, and has a cranky call.
The tinier Red-breasted Nuthatch is associated with coniferous forests, has a conspicuous black eye line, and sounds whiny. Anyone who has dealt with toddlers can distinguish between cranky and whiny.
In my backyard, the Red-breasted Nuthatches are seen both in my spruce trees and my deciduous ones—the birds that visit my window feeder spend a lot of time in the box elder right out the window from me. I watch them moving up and down the trunk, and also inspecting the twigs and small branches, probing little crevices and leaf surfaces.
If I keep one in view for several minutes in summer, I just about always watch it catch a surprisingly large insect larva. These plump, juicy larvae aren’t available in winter. Rather than waste a lot of time probing for frozen insect eggs and pupae hidden more deeply in woody crevices, Red-breasted Nuthatches focus a lot of their attention on conifer seeds, which they feed on voraciously and also cache in bark crevices. They often hide seeds under pieces of bark or lichen. At our feeders, they prefer sunflower seed and peanuts, and also suet.
By mid-August, Red-breasted Nuthatches are entirely done breeding for the year. Their nest holes are about the same size, and in the same kinds of trees, as chickadee nest holes. But if you discover a tiny hole in a rotten tree, during the breeding season or when you’re chopping wood in fall and winter, it’s easy to figure out whether it was built by a Red-breasted Nuthatch or a chickadee. Red-breasted Nuthatches collect resin globules from coniferous trees and plaster them around the entrance of the nest hole. They can carry the resin in their bills or on pieces of bark that they use as applicators. The male puts resin primarily around the outside of the hole while the female puts it around the inside. The resin may help to keep out predators or competitors. The nuthatches don’t get sticky feathers from it because they dive directly through the hole without resting on the edge.
Red-breasted Nuthatches are an irruptive species, which can disappear from large areas of their range during years when cone production is poor, and be abundant in years when there are plenty of cones. We virtually always have at least a few all winter in the northland, but some years they’re scarcer than others. So far, 2011 is shaping up to be a good one for these spirited, charismatic little birds, and for those of us who treasure them.
Link to Red-breasted Nuthatch on All About Birds.