Door to Nature: Nuthatches Are Really Nuthacks

Roy holds a white-breasted nuthatch after banding it. Photo by Charlotte Lukes.

The breeding season is over for the native birds, and with the approach of winter, more species are coming to my feeders. The black-capped chickadees are some of the most frequent visitors to get sunflower seeds, and with every cold front, more seem to be in the yard and at the feeders. 

Another native small feeder bird is the nuthatch. The upland hardwood forest where I live is home to the white-breasted nuthatch, and the red-breasted nuthatch is more commonly found in conifer woodlands such as the cedar wetlands of lakeshore areas. 

Years ago, when my late husband, Roy, used to capture and band songbirds in the backyard of The Ridges’ range light residence, I photographed some of them. We were both fascinated with the intricate black, gray and white plumage of the white-breasted nuthatch.

If you can imagine a small bird lodging a sunflower seed or a beechnut in a crevice on the trunk of a tree and hacking it open to get the meat, then the name nuthatch makes sense. There are a few Old World birds that do precisely that, and they’re called “nuthacks.”

The well-groomed white-breasted nuthatches, which come many times daily to the sunflower-seed feeders, frequently wedge a seed into a crack in the tree bark and chip away to remove the hull. Several well-aimed blows with their slightly upturned beak can break away the covering to the tasty prize inside.

How businesslike this little creature carries on. Upon catching a nuthatch in his mist net while banding birds, Roy was impressed by its strong, short, stocky legs and especially wide stance. The birds’ proportionately large feet and arched toes provide them with the marvelous acrobatic ability of being able to walk effortlessly upside down, sideways and right side up on a tree trunk. They do not need their tail as a third point of support the way woodpeckers do.

White-breasted nuthatches devour scores of insects and insect eggs, as well as acorns, pine seeds and a little corn now and then. Even though we in northeastern Wisconsin consider them permanent residents, white-breasted nuthatches in the extreme northern part of their range, as documented by banding studies, are known to migrate far enough south to find a more dependable winter food supply. The same holds true for their cousins, the red-breasted nuthatches, and black-capped chickadees.

These bobtailed climbers have quite a range: It extends from southern Canada clear into southern Mexico and includes about the eastern two-thirds of the continental United States. Every county of Wisconsin claims this solitary creature as a permanent resident.

Many bird species are adaptable enough to exist quite well in various forest types. Not so for the white-breasted nuthatches: Seldom are they found far from maple-hemlock woods, especially those containing oak trees.

Look closely at the head of the next white-breasted nuthatch that you see. The female tends to have lighter black or dark gray across the top and back of her head. The male has a pure black crown and nape. The youngsters hatched this year will follow this pattern from the time when they are completely feathered.

Should you be lucky enough to have both the white-breasted and red-breasted species in your area, you’ll find that it’s easy to tell them apart. The red-breasted is smaller by about an inch and has a well-defined, black, horizontal eye line that the white-breasted lacks. And its breast is not white, but a distinct, rusty light brown.

Few birds have such a distinctive call. It’s hard to imitate it, other than to say that it sounds like “yank-yank-yank.” This rather loud, nasal sound has a richer quality and carries farther than that of its mellower, smaller cousin, the red-breasted nuthatch. Roy often referred to the red-breasted species as the Northwoods oboist.

Roy wrote about the red-breasted nuthatch for Wisconsin’s Atlas of Breeding Birds, saying that the first one that ate sunflower seeds from his bare hand on a cold, January day was very trusting. 

“Unlike the chickadees, which always faced me as they took a seed, the red-breast repeatedly turned its tail toward me and fed as if I didn’t exist!

“This species’ unusual tameness was also illustrated the day I slowly approached one as it ate suet at an eye-level feeder outside our kitchen window. Cautiously, I eased my hand upward, made a quick move and easily caught the bird in my hand. I took it indoors, banded it, released it outdoors, and within minutes, it was back at the suet feeder.”

Keep your sunflower-seed feeders filled, and put out suet or marvel meal for these delicate, but hardy native acrobats. You can sit inside and be entertained by the “hackers of nuts” all winter long.