For the Birds: White-breasted nuthatch enjoys topsy-turvy lifestyle – McDowell News

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This white-breasted nuthatch assumes a typical headfirst pose as it makes its way along a tree trunk.
The United States is home to four species of nuthatches: white-breasted, red-breasted, brown-headed and pygmy.
The power of flight gives most birds a perfectly valid reason to disregard the pull of gravity. The family of tree-clinging birds known as nuthatches lives an even more topsy-turvy lifestyle than many other of their winged kin. Nuthatches prefer a headfirst stance as they search for food in the nooks and crannies in tree trunks and branches.
I witnessed this firsthand on a recent frosty morning. While crossing a footbridge over the creek, I heard an odd, raspy noise. Upon investigation, I detected a white-breasted nuthatch shuffling over the bark being shed from a decaying mimosa tree. The bird continuously probed crevices in the bark, making tiny squeaks as it circled the thick branches of the large tree. The fearless nuthatch noted my presence, but I allayed any immediate retreat by standing motionless and observing for an interval.
Because of their gravity-defying antics, the white-breasted nuthatch and other members of the family can provide hours of entertainment at our bird feeders. Individual white-breasted nuthatches will follow a single-minded path along the trunk of a tree or a branch on the way to a feeder. An individual nuthatch rarely varies from this path. It’s amusing to watch the jerky progress along the trunk as this bird prepares for a flight to a feeder holding sunflower seeds or a hanging wire basket of suet.
The United States is home to four species of nuthatches: white-breasted, red-breasted, brown-headed and pygmy. White-breasted nuthatches are probably the most familiar nuthatch to backyard birders in this area.
At my home, nuthatches typically remain aloof from the rivalry always ongoing between the chickadees and titmice. The white-breasted nuthatch is also a no-nonsense visitor. Rarely distracted by disturbances among other birds, this nuthatch is content to grab a seed and go or hang on to the wire frame of a suet basket and peck off chunks.
The more numerous titmice and chickadees give way when a white-breasted nuthatch claims a feeder. At times, however, a tufted titmouse or a Carolina chickadee will forget itself and fly to a position on a feeder already claimed by a nuthatch. If surprised enough to retreat to a nearby perch, the nuthatch will go through a rather comical little dance to express its displeasure. Wings spread out in a rigid pose, the bird will turn around in tight circles, showing definite resentment at being displaced by an offending chickadee or titmouse. It’s all part of the hurly-burly routine of mixed flocks at a busy bird feeder.
In our region, the stubby red-breasted nuthatch is another member of the family that occasionally finds its way to our yards. Smaller than the related white-breasted nuthatch and, as far as I can tell, complacent in the company of chickadees and titmice, the red-breasted nuthatch is always a welcome visitor. It has a tell-tale “yank yank” call it produces when excited that sounds very much like little tin horns. The red-breasted nuthatch, perhaps because it spends so much of the year in more remote areas, can also be amazingly tame when it pays a winter visit.
Both of these nuthatches can be attracted to feeders by offering peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet. They are also cavity-nesting birds, but they are more reluctant about accepting a nesting box as a place to rear young. They will gladly accept an old woodpecker hole or other natural cavity in a tree.
The brown-headed nuthatch is a specialist of pine woodlands throughout the southeastern United States, favoring loblolly-shortleaf pines and longleaf-slash pines. This nuthatch requires standing dead trees for nesting and roosting. They forage for food, however, on live pines. The birds are more abundant in older pine stands.
The species is uncommon in the region. I’ve managed to find brown-headed nuthatch during visits to coastal South Carolina or suburban Atlanta in Georgia. In these southern locations, the species can be a common bird.
These small birds will occasionally forage close to the ground, but they are often in the upper branches of pine trees. Their presence is often revealed by their call, which sounds amazingly like a squeeze toy. They produce their “squeaky toy” call persistently when agitated or curious. Brown-headed nuthatches often associate with mixed flocks in company with Carolina chickadees, tufted titmice, pine warblers and other small songbirds.
I hope to eventually complete my list of North American nuthatches by adding the fourth species — pygmy nuthatch — to my life list. I have made two trips to western North America, where this species ranges, but haven’t managed to find this bird. Both the pygmy and brown-headed are among the smallest members of the nuthatch family.
These birds are named “nuthatch” for the habit of some species to wedge a large seed in a crack and hack at it with their strong bills. I like to refer to them as “upside-down birds” because gravity doesn’t seem much of a factor in their daily lives. They are content to walk headfirst down a tree trunk or probe the underside of a large branch. It must give them an interesting perspective on the world around them.
To share a sighting, make a comment or ask a question, email Stevens at
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This white-breasted nuthatch assumes a typical headfirst pose as it makes its way along a tree trunk.
The United States is home to four species of nuthatches: white-breasted, red-breasted, brown-headed and pygmy.


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