Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Variations on the Theme of Nuthatch

This fall we’ve been experiencing the rare pleasure of having three different species of Nuthatches around our yard daily. All three – Brown-headed, Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatch – visit the feeders and forage in the nearby trees, and their calls add spice, and often a comical touch, to the dry sounds of the late-autumn woods. Each of the three is a variation on the theme of Nuthatch – a small, short-tailed, long-billed family of birds that creep over tree-trunks or branches, often moving downward head first, feeding on insects.

It’s been a great opportunity, especially, to observe the Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, neither of which we’ve ever had around for more than brief visits before now. I’m having fun listening to their calls and trying to learn them well. While the Red-breasted Nuthatch’s most common call is the “tin-horn toot” of ank-ank-ank, the White-breasted’s call is deeper, slightly hoarse, and more like cronk, cronk. Both make much softer nasal calls while they’re foraging, a very gentle eenh, frequently repeated as they creep up and down and over branches.

The more familiar squeaky-dee chatter of our year-round resident Brown-headed Nuthatches is probably heard less often than the other two right now, though they still come around at some time every day. When they do, they seem to dominate the other two species, as well as I can tell, and while they’re at the feeders, the others seem to stay out of the way. But in general, all three of the Nuthatch species are pretty bold and even aggressive. I’ve seen a Red-breasted Nuthatch chase a Chickadee away from a feeder several times – though larger birds like the Titmice aren’t so easily intimidated. On the other hand, I’ve often seen Brown-headed Nuthatches sharing a feeder with Chickadees, Titmice, a Downy Woodpecker and other birds – maybe because they live here together all year long.

Red-breasted Nuthatches – with ruddy red breasts, bluish backs and bright white and black stripes over and through the eye – first showed up here in early October, and since then, at least two have been visiting the feeders regularly, pretty much all day, every day. They also come to the birdbaths, and are less shy when I’m around than most of the other birds. One of them will often come for a drink when I’m sitting only a few feet away, as if it’s just too busy to be bothered by my presence.

When I took down a feeder one morning recently to refill it, one Red-breasted Nuthatch waited in a branch just over my head and as soon as I walked away, it came immediately back to the tray. One sometimes will stay on the hanging block feeder for a long time, mostly hanging upside down and feeding from the bottom of it, snaking its head up to look around frequently. On the tube feeder, they more often grab a bite and fly away with it toward the back yard, where there are several pines, or fly up to one particular stub of a branch to work on whatever seed or nut they have taken.

So I’m having a good time watching them all. I like the small, feisty Red-breasted Nuthatch for its intensity and apparently unwavering focus on food gathering; for the way it’s not shy and will come so close to me; and for its funny ank-ank-ank calls that carry like echoes of another time through the pines and the bare gray branches of the woods.

When the Brown-headed Nuthatches arrive, chattering back and forth to each other, they brighten up the whole yard, sounding cheerful and seeming to bring sociability and activity with them. Though I know that’s only my interpretation, it always sounds like a party when they’re around.

The White-breasted Nuthatch – my favorite right now – I admire for its beauty and grace, for the elegant lines of the black head and nape against the snow-white of the throat and breast; for the sleek arch of its neck as it looks up, and for the artful way it moves over a branch as it forages, as if the movement itself were a pleasure.


Post a Comment

<< Home