Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Favorite Bird: Red-Breasted Nuthatches

One day last year I was teaching a group of elementary school students the basics of bird watching and bird ID. It was June, the end of the school year, and the morning was mild. Armed with binoculars, we crept around the end of the building, and our silence was rewarded by a family of red-breasted nuthatches hopping headfirst down the side of a tree.

The newly-flighted juveniles were learning the ropes from Mom, who was instructing them in the fine art of foraging. As with many juvenile birds, the youngsters looked larger than the adult, courtesy of their still downy feathers. It was a great find for me (I’ve only once before watched an adult bird teaching its off-spring to find food), and even the kids seemed to appreciate this glimpse into the otherwise hidden lives of our resident birds.

Red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) are one of my favorite birds. They are tiny, they are funny-looking (especially as they hop around on tree trunks, going up, down and sideways with equal aplomb), and they are easily trained to come to a hand full of seed. They often are found hanging out with black-capped chickadees, which are also very friendly little birds and another of my favorites. With a little patience, and plenty of seed, you can have a whole flock of these small birds flitting around and landing on you when you go out to fill your feeders. I’ve even known biologists to have the birds looking for handouts in their research plots.

Here in the Adirondacks we have two nuthatches: the red-breasted and the white-breasted. As their names suggest, there is a color difference between the two, but you can also tell them apart by size: the red-breasted is significantly smaller. In addition to this, the red-breasted is also the only nuthatch with a white stripe above its eyes, and a black stripe that goes through the eyes. Both species have a rather nasal call, yank yank, although the red’s has a higher pitch.

Throughout the year we get many birders who stop at the VIC, often looking for boreal birds to add to their life lists. We don’t really have boreal habitat in Newcomb, although we do sometimes get boreal species, like the black-backed woodpecker and boreal chickadees. Many of these birders, though, are thrilled to see the red-breasted nuthatch, for it is really a northern bird, with New York State being at the southern edge of its regular range. In some years, however, an irruption might occur, when great numbers of these birds fly south in the winter in search of food. This usually happens when there is a cone failure in the north.

Because of their presence at feeders, we tend to think of nuthatches as being primarily seed eaters, and in the winter they are. Conifer seeds and nuts make up the majority of their winter diet, but in the warm months they turn to insects and spiders for most of their nutritional needs. This stand to reason, when you think about it: insects are around in great quantity in the spring through early fall, and seeds are available when the insect population goes into decline.

It’s fun to watch nuthatches as they forage on tree trunks. They hop continuously around the trunk, poking their beaks into crevices and flipping up bits of loose bark. They are looking in all possible hidey-holes for insects, or they might be searching for seeds or nuts they stashed away. Up and down, round and round they go. This is all made possible by the extra-long claws they have on their backward-facing toes. The extra grip they get allows them to zip around trees with impunity. If only we could be so skilled ourselves!

In the spring, start looking for potential nest sites. Because they are cavity nesters, nuthatches seek out trees that have soft wood. This could be a standing snag (a tree that is dead) whose wood is rotting, or it could be an aspen, which is famous for its soft wood. Conifers also fill the bill for nuthatches seeking a place to call home. Both the male and female will work for about two and a half weeks excavating a hole (unless they are reusing an old hole), although the female does most of the work. She then builds a nest inside out of grass, pine needles, and strips of bark. Once the cup is complete, she lines it with assorted soft fibers: fur, feathers, shredded bark, and fine grasses.

One of the truly nifty things the red-breasted nuthatch does is gather blobs of resin from conifer trees and use it to line the entrance hole to the nesting cavity. The male typically smears it around the outside, while the female does the same inside. Often they use their bills to collect the resin and spread the sticky goo, but sometimes they use bits of bark as tools, kind of like using a putty knife to spread spackle. This example of tool-usage by a bird is not common (outside of highly intelligent birds like crows and ravens), and is very cool. Biologists believe the resin may serve to deter predators and/or competitors. And how do the resident birds keep the sticky mess off their own feathers? By diving directly into the cavity – no perching on the outside and then hopping in for these creative birds. I suppose they must have equally good aim for exiting the nest.

As I’ve walked through the woods this fall, I’ve wondered if this is an irruptive year for the red-breasted nuthatch, for I’ve been seeing (and hearing) more of these tiny birds than usual. Great numbers of them have been flocking to the feeders (did you know a group of nuthatches is called a jar?), where they can be a bit aggressive, chasing away the placid little chickadees to get to the sunflower seeds first. Whatever the reason for their presence, I’m happy to see them. And it’s good to know that their numbers are, over all, increasing.

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Ellen Rathbone is by her own admission a "certified nature nut." She began contributing to the Adirondack Almanack while living in Newcomb, when she was an environmental educator for the Adirondack Park Agency's Visitor Interpretive Centers for nearly ten years.

Ellen graduated from SUNY ESF in 1988 with a BS in forestry and biology and has worked as a naturalist in New York, New Jersey, and Vermont.

In 2010 her work took her to Michigan, where she currently resides and serves as Education Director of the Dahlem Conservancy just outside Jackson, Michigan.

She also writes her own blog about her Michigan adventures.





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  1. Ellen Rathbone says: