Nuthatches are agile and acrobatic little birds that forage on tree trunks and branches, often moving downwards headfirst or hanging upside down. Three species of nuthatches live in my area: the Red-breasted (Sitta canadensis), White-breasted (S. carolinensis), and Pygmy (S. pygmaea). Many other nuthatch species live throughout Eurasia and North America. Here, Red-breasted Nuthatches are the most common and widespread of the three, but Pygmy Nuthatches are the ones that we seem to have the most of in our yard and they’re the ones that I was able to get photos of for this post. All of these three nuthatches live mainly in open forests with mature trees, often conifers mixed with deciduous trees. The Pygmy Nuthatch is the most specialized in its habitat requirements, as it prefers park-like stands of large, old ponderosa pines. (It can, however, also be found in mixed forests that include pine; this is the case in our yard, as we only have one large ponderosa pine nearby, but quite a few Douglas-firs).
Nuthatches are truly charming little birds, and are among my favourites to watch for at the feeder. They have high levels of energy, and high-pitched, excited-sounding calls. They never sit still for long, but quickly grab a seed and fly off again. A bird this small needs to spend most of its time eating, and nuthatches spend their summer days probing in bark crevices and among conifer needles for insects and spiders. They can therefore be beneficial birds in the forests as they help to control populations of insects that can become pests, such as weevils and bark beetles. In winter, when insects are not as readily available, they eat conifer seeds and nuts. In fact, the very name “nuthatch” refers to this bird’s practice of wedging seeds into bark cracks and using its strong bill to break the seeds open. Some of the seeds they store themselves during the summer, tucking them into crevices or under flakes of bark. And nuthatches also eat sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet at the feeder.
Nuthatches may be tiny, but they are also one of the few birds other than woodpeckers that can excavate their own nest holes in trees. They do, however, need softer, decayed wood to do this, and will use old cavities made by other birds or reuse their own old nest holes if they can. Once the nest hole is made (or found), they fill it with soft materials such as bark, moss, grass, feathers, and fur. Red-breasted Nuthatches give their nests an extra layer of protection by smearing tree resin around the entrance to the hole. They sometimes even use pieces of bark as tools to do this. The resin helps to deter parasitic insects, nest competitors, and potential predators.
In winter, nuthatches often join mixed-species feeding flocks that include chickadees and other small songbirds. As I described in my post on chickadees, these flocks allow the birds to feed more efficiently and watch out for predators. Chickadees are often the key members of these groups, as the other species (including the nuthatches) will recognize the chickadees’ alarm calls.
I think all nuthatches are amazing birds, but I find the Pygmy Nuthatch to be possibly the most fascinating. This is the smallest nuthatch, but also the most social. These birds usually live together in extended families, foraging through the pines and keeping track of each other by calling. In fact, it is unusual to see one of these birds by themselves. As I was taking the photos for these posts, I noticed that the nuthatches would typically arrive in groups, filling every perch on the feeder before flying off again. These extended families are important, as the offspring of the previous year will help their parents raise their new brood of young chicks. They help to defend the nest and to feed the chicks. When winter comes, several family groups may form a larger flock. On cold winter nights they roost together in tree cavities to stay warm; sometimes over 100 birds may be found together in a cavity. And if that’s not enough, the birds can also lower their body temperatures to conserve energy. When I see these tiny birds darting about in the early-autumn sunshine, I find it hard to believe that they are able to survive the cold of winter, but amazingly these strategies allow them to do just that.
The main reason whey I love nuthatches (and why they’re among my favourite birds) is that they’re not just cute little birds. They display a range of truly remarkable behaviours: they store food (and remember where it is stored), use tools, cooperate with other species, and help their parents raise young – all with a brain that must be scarcely larger than a pea. All of these behaviours are the result of many years of evolution and adaptation to a demanding environment. I find nuthatches both humbling and inspiring, because they remind me that even creatures with pea-sized brains can cause us humans to marvel and that even those who are small can do amazing things. And being cute little birds doesn’t hurt either.