Feathered Friends: Nuthatches among GBBC sightings

10:45 am | February 27, 2012

While participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count last weekend, White-breasted Nuthatch was one of the birds that kept showing up on my count lists.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service - A White-breasted Nuthatch descends head-first down a tree trunk. These small birds are wellsuited to a topsy-turvy world. They have strong legs for grasping at trunks and branches and a useful bill for probing for prey hidden in nooks and crevices in the bark of trees.

Unlike some recent winters, however, I haven’t detected even a hint of Red-breasted Nuthatches at my feeders, and I didn’t encounter this small nuthatch on any of my GBBC counts last weekend.

Nuthatches, when present in the vicinity of any yard with a feeder, become reliable visitors. They often mingle as members of mixed flocks, which are often comprised of such birds as Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice and perhaps a Ruby-crowned Kinglet or Carolina Wren. At times, these flocks may also attract a Downy Woodpecker or a Brown Creeper.

The center of any such flock will invariably be comprised of Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice. These closely related birds have a well-established hierarchy. First, any Tufted Titmouse is superior to a Carolina Chickadee. That means, at a feeder, the Tufted Titmouse has the right to fly in first, snatch a seed and then retreat. Then, if no other Tufted Titmice are waiting, a Carolina Chickadee will be permitted to play out that same procedure.

In a flock of Tufted Titmice or a flock of Carolina Chickadees, individual birds, too, know their place — not that there aren’t occasional squabbles, especially when two of the same species show up at the same spot on a feeder. These disagreements are quickly settled with one bird flying off to a nearby perch until its flock “superior” is finished.

Watching these interactions between birds that, at least to the human eye, look almost identical confirms that individuality is present even in these feathered creatures.

If the chickadees and titmice form the center of a mixed species flock, the White-breasted Nuthatches are aloof members that come and go as they please. Individual White-breasted Nuthatches will follow a single-minded path along the trunk of a tree or a branch on their way to a feeder. An individual nuthatch rarely varies from this path. It’s amusing to see themselves jerking themselves along the trunk as they ready themselves for a flight to a feeder holding sunflower seeds or a hanging wire basket of suet.

They 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, they are content to grab a seed and go or hang onto the wire frame of a suet basket and peck off chunks of suet.

Both the more numerous titmice and chickadees give way when a White-breasted Nuthatch claims a feeder. At times, however, among the frantic activity, 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 White-breasted Nuthatch will go through a rather comical little dance to express its displeasure. Wings spread out in a rigid pose, the White-breasted Nuthatch will turn around in tight circles, showing definite resentment at being displaced by an offending chickadee or titmouse.

These displays are usually brief, unless they are directed toward another White-breasted Nuthatch. A male-female pair of White-breasted Nuthatches can peaceably visit a feeding area at the same time. Two male nuthatches — or two female nuthatches for that matter — show no toleration for each other. Their little dances of defiance are in these cases demonstrated for each other. Eventually, one nuthatch will give way, but these are stubborn birds, much more set in their ways than chickadees and titmice. In Northeast Tennessee, there is another nuthatch species sometimes encountered at feeders. The stubby Red-breasted Nuthatch is smaller than the related White-breasted Nuthatch and, as far as I can tell, does not try to challenge chickadees and titmice.

Both nuthatches can be attracted by offering peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet. They are also cavity-nesting birds, but 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.

Nuthatches 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 to be a factor in their daily lives. They are content to go 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.

Worldwide, there are about 25 species of nuthatches, but only four species occur in the United States. The White-breasted Nuthatch and Red-breasted Nuthatch span the continent of North America, but the other two species are less widespread. The Brown-headed Nuthatch is a specialist of southern pine forests. On visits to South Carolina and Georgia, I often enjoy observations of Brown-headed Nuthatches. In Tennessee, I have only seen the Brown-headed Nuthatch in Chattanooga.

The fourth North American nuthatch is the Pygmy Nuthatch. This bird and the Brown-headed Nuthatch, which both reach a length of barely four inches, are considered the smallest members of the family. On the other end of the size scale is the appropriately named Giant Nuthatch, which reaches a length of almost eight inches. The Giant Nuthatch ranges through China, Thailand and Burma.

Some members of the family have surprisingly descriptive names for birds that spend most of their lives creeping in obscurity along the trunks and branches of trees. Some of the more descriptive names for these little birds include Beautiful Nuthatch, Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, Snowy-browed Nuthatch and Chestnut-vented Nuthatch.


Speaking of the Great Backyard Bird Count, I made several counts from Friday, Feb. 17 to Monday, Feb. 20. I conducted a count each day at my home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton. I also did some counts in Erwin, Unicoi and Elizabethton.

If nothing else, I confirmed that American Robins are present throughout the area. I encountered robins both at home and at all my other count sites. So, for all the readers who have been wondering about the presence of American Robins this winter, I can indeed confirm that these birds had a sizable presence. If you haven’t seen your first “robin” of spring yet, I have no doubt you will soon.

I will go into more detail about this year’s GBBC in upcoming columns.


If you have a comment or question, give me a call at 297-9077 or send an e-mail to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. I’m also on Facebook.

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