Summit Outside: The nuthatch, a busy little High Country bird
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If you see a very agile, active little bird hopping down a tree trunk headfirst, or hanging upside down, it is probably a nuthatch; maybe a red-breasted or a white-breasted nuthatch.
I’ve always thought the name “nuthatch” was funny, because the slang for “nut” implies a crazy person, or a part of the male anatomy. Apparently the word “nut” was used as a slang term for “head” back around 1820. Gradually it acquired the meaning not merely of “head” but of something wrong in the head.
Also attached to the species name is what is generally considered female mammary glands. Birds do not nurse, so obviously do not have breasts – rather, this term refers to the chest.
How do birds get their name? When we were kids we use to giggle at some of the funny names like “booby” or “coot.” Generally common names usually are either descriptive or related to location or the person who discovered the animal. These cute little birds actually get the name “nuthatch” from wedging nuts into bark crevices to hack at them with their strong bill.
There are three kinds of nuthatches in Colorado: the white-breasted nuthatch; the red-breasted nuthatch and the pygmy. All three species are here year-round. Red-breasted nuthatches spend the winters in the south and their summers mostly north while the white-breasted are non-migratory. The pygmy nuthatch is a permanent resident of montane habitats in the Rocky Mountain region in forests of ponderosa pine.
The obvious difference between the nuthatches is the breast color and the head markings.
The red-breasted nuthatch has a black-and-white striped head, while the white-breasted nuthatch has an all-white face with a black cap.
The red-breasted nuthatch tends to move more rapidly than the white-breasted, and they move more frequently to the smaller branches winding about the little twigs out to the end, and among the pine needles. The red-breasted also tend to congregate more than the white-breasted and when feeding they have such a range of vocalizations that they almost seem to talk.
The pygmy nuthatch has a warm gray cap, blue-gray upper-parts and whitish underbody, and has been described as bean-shaped. This species is also highly gregarious and over 100 birds have been seen huddled in a single tree cavity.
The nuthatch eats insects and seeds. They place large food items, such as acorns or hickory nuts, in crevices in tree trunks, and then hammer them open with their strong beak. Surplus seeds are cached under loose bark or crevices of trees. The diet in winter may be nearly 70 percent seeds, but in summer it is mainly insects. The red-breasted especially will also fly out to catch insects in the air.
The nuthatch shares the tree canopies with chickadees, kinglets and woodpeckers, but sticks to tree trunks and branches, where they search bark furrows for hidden insects. Their excitable yank-yank calls sound like tiny tin horns.
The nuthatch form pairs following a courtship in which the male bows to the female, spreading his tail and drooping his wings while swaying back and forth. He also feeds her morsels of food – a nice touch!
The pair establishes a territory of 25-38 acres in woodland, and up to 50 acres in semi-wooded habitats, and then remains together year-round until one partner dies or disappears.
The nest cavity is usually a natural hole in a decaying tree, or sometimes an old woodpecker nest, 10-40 feet high in a tree and is lined with fur, fine grass and shredded bark.
They will smear pitch around the entrance to deter insects, mammals and other birds. A piece of bark is often used to spread the pitch. They will fly straight into the hole to avoid the pitch. When a bird leaves the nest hole, it wipes around the entrance with a piece of fur or vegetation.
The white-breasted nuthatch may also smear blister beetles around the entrance to its nest, and it has been suggested that the unpleasant smell from the crushed insects deters squirrels, its chief competitor for natural tree cavities
The clutch is five to nine eggs, which are creamy-white with reddish brown speckles. The eggs are incubated by the female. The male will feed her while she incubates the eggs for around two weeks.
Both adults feed the chicks in the nest and for about two weeks after fledging.
Once independent, juveniles leave the adults’ territory and either establish their own territory or become “floaters,” unpaired birds without territories.
The white-breasted nuthatch roosts in tree holes or behind loose bark when not breeding, and has the unusual habit of cleaning up its feces from the roost site in the morning. It usually roosts alone except in very cold weather, when up to 29 birds have been recorded together.
Predators of adult nuthatches include owls and hawks. Nestlings and eggs are eaten by woodpeckers and small squirrels.
Nuthatches can be fairly tame, and like chickadees may take food from your hand. There are even reports that some nuthatches will follow a person they are familiar with, until they get food. Let them get use to you by a feeder, then hold out your hand with sunflower seeds in it.
Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology Rutgers
University, and has taught classes at CMC. She is now pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.
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