By Bill Chaisson
I don’t remember the first time I saw a nuthatch. It was likely at my home in Hudson Valley, where the 1.75-acre parcel was covered with large spreading landscape trees in the areas that the elderly owners preceding us had maintained the property and covered with second-growth Norway maple and ailanthus where they had not. The lot occupied part of a low rise called Spy Hill and it was surrounded by similar-sized properties that for perhaps 20 years had been experiencing a state of mixed neglect and care. The white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is one of those birds that appears to thrive in this sort of setting, which is not mimicked by any natural setting in the northeastern United States. Like robins, white-breasted nuthatches are probably more common now than they were in pre-Columbian times.
Your first sight of a nuthatch might be puzzling. They move adroitly up tree trunks and along branches like a woodpecker, brown creeper, or a black-and-white warbler, but then they turn around and go back down headfirst. No other North American bird does that. Chickadees and some of the more agile finches are able to hang upside down from twigs and forage, but they don’t routinely make their way downward while clinging to the bark.
Both the woodpeckers and the creeper used their tails to brace themselves, advancing their feet while balanced on their stiff tail feathers. Nuthatches (and the black-and-white warbler) use only their feet, but the sittids move along vertical and underneath horizontal surfaces by advancing one foot while keeping the other fixed behind, much like a human being inches down a sharp incline with one foot forward and the trailing foot as an anchor.
The nuthatches feed more like a creeper, but whereas the creeper is almost entirely insectivorous, the nuthatches, as their name implies are looking for both insects and seeds. While the creeper’s beak is long, very thin and decurved (bent downward), the sittids have straight to slightly recurved (bent upward) bills, thinner than those of woodpeckers. Woodpeckers pound holes into trees, but nuthatches spend most of their time probing into the interstices of the bark, searching for eggs, larvae, and adult invertebrates. They may occasionally tear off a loose piece of bark, but they don’t get more destructive than that.
Brown creepers are present all year, but they continue searching for invertebrates through the winter. Nuthatches, in contrast, are regular visitors to feeding stations in the colder months, and you will regularly see how they earned their common name. Chickadees will take a sunflower seed back to a perch, pin it to the branch with their feet, and break it open with their bills. But because nuthatches have very short legs they have come up with another technique, which is to wedge the seed into a crevice of some kind and hack it open with a few well aimed strokes of their bill. They do this through the rest of the year, but you are less likely to witness it.
The white-breasted nuthatch is the most common and widespread species in North America. There are three others, but only one — the red-breasted (Sitta canadensis) — occurs in the Northeast. (There are 29 species ranging across the entire Northern Hemisphere.) Most of the sittids are permanent residents, but some red-breasted nuthatches, which range further north on this continent than the other three, retreat southward in the winter.
In some years, the red-breasted nuthatch, like many of the boreal finches, will irrupt. The most recent event was last winter. Starting in fall 2018 reports of this species began to climb in places where they not usually seen, like suburban New Jersey.
The white-breasted nuthatch prefers deciduous habitat and the red-breasted is normally found in coniferous forests. These preferences allow their ranges to broadly overlap without their competing for food. However, when the northern spruce seed crop fails, as it did in 2018, the red-breasted nuthatch must invade the territory of its fellow sittid. Even in this event, you will most often observe the red-breasted species gravitating toward coniferous trees, although both species will visit your feeder.
The white-breasted nuthatch lives up to its name, but in fact in the eastern populations the whole of its undersides may pass for white, being grayer on the belly and sides. Their backs are a slate gray and they have a chestnut patch from behind their legs to the underside of the tail. They have a black cap and nape, but the cheeks and all around the eyes are snow white. The bill is bicolored with the slightly longer lower mandible being grayish and the upper mandible black. In flight there are flashes of white on the underside of the wings and on the tail.
Western populations have grayer sides and bellies and the chestnut patch is more extensive and darker, which is especially pronounced in the males. In the east the male and female are very similar looking with the males tending to have a slightly more extensive rufous area.
Red-breasted nuthatches are also aptly named being chestnut from neck to tail, but the females and juveniles are much paler chestnut. This species has white cheeks, but the face is divided by a thick black line that passes through the eye, leaving a white stripe above the eye and below the black crown. It is smaller than the white-breasted, only 4.5 inches long compared to 6 inches.
In addition to preferring differ species of trees, the red-breasted nuthatches also have a greater tendency than white-breasted birds to venture out to the smaller branches at the far ends of branches to forage. All nuthatches are restless and seem to feed constantly, but the red-breasted moves more quickly and abruptly. While white-breasted nuthatches are friendly and curious and may pause in their feeding to stare at you or even approach you to get a better look, red-breasted nuthatches are skittish and tend to stay higher in the trees and well away from human contact.
Given their tendency to hug the bark, nuthatches are often heard before they are seen. They seem to remain in pairs throughout the year and the two birds often call to one another while they are foraging. In the white-breasted species this is a flat nasal “ank-ank,” sometimes repeated quickly in series if the bird is startled or excited. The red-breasted nuthatch’s call is a more congested “yenk-yenk” sound that is higher pitched than that of its larger cousin.