Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Red-breasted Nuthatches

The Red-Breasted Nuthatch
© 2008 Dave Spier

At less than five inches long, the Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is a little smaller and stubbier than its white-breasted cousin (discussed in the previous blog). The belly and breast are orangish, but paler on the female. There is a bold black stripe that runs from the beak through the eye to the back of the head. Above this black stripe is a distinct white stripe (called a supercilium, although it’s easier to think of it as an eyebrow) and then a black crown, or in the case of the female, a grayish crown. The White-breasted Nuthatch has a beady black eye on a white face, making it a quick distinction from the Red-breasted Nuthatch’s black eye stripe.
Both nuthatch species have the habit of spiraling head-first down tree trunks, giving them the unique nickname, “downheads.” The red-breasted is found in conifers or mixed deciduous and coniferous woods and prefers older stands with some decaying trees. They nest in knotholes or excavate a rotten branch or stump, but abandoned woodpecker holes or nest boxes will suffice in a pinch. Red-breasted Nuthatches apply conifer resin around the entrance to their nest cavity. It’s believed the sticky resin discourages predators and competitors. The feisty little nuthatch also chases away other species like wrens, woodpeckers and White-breasted Nuthatches that might want its nest hole. The five or six light-colored eggs are marked with reddish-brown squiggles and hatch in about 12 days. The helpless babies are fed insects and spiders (yummy!) and grow for two to three weeks before leaving the nest
The word “nuthatch” is a corruption of the English term “nuthack” originally applied to European nuthatches. White-breasted nuthatches will hack apart acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts and cherry pits, but the natural diet of the red-breasted is limited to seeds extracted from evergreen cones plus insects and other invertebrates gleaned from bark crevices. In civilized parts of their range they frequent white-suet feeders where they will linger for what seems like hours. They also visit seed feeders but like the chickadees, they dash in, grab a seed and fly off. They interact well with juncos, chickadees, titmice and White-breasted Nuthatches, even the larger jays and cardinals, but they don’t seem to like the larger woodpeckers like the hairy. They have to be constantly on the lookout for predators, mainly Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks which find bird feeders to be a great invention for concentrating prey in one spot. That’s why it’s best to place feeders close to dense escape cover like bushes. Cats are another problem and it’s best to keep them indoors if you feed birds.
The call of the red-breasted has been likened to a toy tin horn as it gives a series of “ank, ank, ank” notes. Pairs stay together year round and use the call notes to keep in touch. The Red-breasted Nuthatch is somewhat migratory, so its numbers fluctuate from time to time, depending on the abundance of cone seeds in its home range. Some of our summer birds may go south, but in other years some Canadian birds may come here for the winter. Across Canada, into the Adirondacks and New England they live in boreal spruce-fir forests. When migrating south, some observers claim that, given a choice, they prefer pine and hemlock, although a report from the Village of Wolcott indicates they’re just as much at home in a row of tall arborvitae trees.
Contact me at northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com or visit my photo websites http://picasaweb.google.com/northeastnaturalist and http://www.flickr.com/photos/dave_spier
(This copyrighted article and photo first appeared in the Times of Wayne County, January 7, 2008. All rights reserved.)

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

White-breasted Nuthatches

The White-breasted Nuthatch
© 2007 Dave Spier

There are two nuthatches likely to be found in New York throughout the year. The common White-breasted Nuthatch prefers deciduous woods and yards while the less common Red-breasted Nuthatch prefers conifers and evergreen woods.
Mention White-breasted Nuthatch, and the first thing that comes to mind is the image of a bird walking head-first DOWN the trunk of tree. Most birds clamber up a tree, or at least perch upright on the trunk. Why would one species reverse the pattern? Simple -- they find food that other birds miss. It gives them a unique perspective on their world. It also gives them a unique nickname, the “downhead.”
Many people are familiar with nuthatches. Perhaps you have a pair or family group coming to your feeder. The white-breasted species (Sitta carolinensis) is a small “songbird” (in the order Passeriformes), although its “song” is more a series of soft, nasal notes resembling “what, what, what” all on the same pitch. Its call is a nasal “yank.”
This bird is only five or six inches long, not that you’ll get close enough to measure it. It’s not as tame as the chickadees and titmice with which it often travels. The White-breasted Nuthatch has blue-gray wings, back and tail-center plus a white face and underparts. The cap, or more accurately the crown-stripe, is black on the male, grayer on the female. When viewing the bird from below, you’ll see the rusty-tan patches under the tail. The stubby tail, if you’re lucky enough to see it fanned in flight, has a white stripe on either side. By comparison, the larger Tufted Titmouse, duller gray on top and white underneath, has a longer tail and crested head while the smaller Black-capped Chickadee has a black throat. The White-breasted Nuthatch has a beady black eye on a white face, making it a quick distinction from the Red-breasted Nuthatch’s black eye stripe discussed in a future blog.
When not visiting your feeder, the White-breasted Nuthatch, a year-round resident, lives in open woods and suburbs populated by large trees, especially oak and pine. In the spring, it builds a nest in a tree cavity by lining the hole with fur, thin grasses and shredded bark. They seem to prefer knotholes, but abandoned woodpecker holes and nest boxes will suffice. The clutch of speckled creamy-white eggs hatch in two weeks and the chicks fledge in roughly 26 days.
The birds live on berries, such as elderberry and Virginia creeper, plus insects found in nooks and crannies of trees – especially dead trees. They also eat nuts which they wedge in bark crevices and hack or “hatch” apart (hence the name “nuthatch,” a corruption of the English term “nuthack”). Acorns, beechnuts, hickory nuts and cherry pits are all on their menu. In the winter, White-breasted nuthatches depend on seeds, some of which may be hidden for later use, but I’ve seen other species find and remove such a cache. They also eat insect eggs or dormant insects found hibernating in bark crevices.
Contact me at northeastnaturalist@yahoo.com or visit my photo websites http://picasaweb.google.com/northeastnaturalist and http://www.flickr.com/photos/dave_spier
(This copyrighted article and photo first appeared in the Times of Wayne County, December 10, 2007. All rights reserved.)