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.)

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