Interview with a White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted nuthatch on a tree
A White-breasted Nuthatch being characteristically acrobatic. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren. CC.

Amelia: What a gorgeous winter day for a walk in the woods. The snow makes everything so hushed and peaceful. Except for that nasal quacking sound. Who’s doing that?

White-breasted Nuthatch: Hey, I don’t comment on your annoying voice. This is just how I sound.

A: Oh, you’re a nuthatch, working your way down a tree upside down. Why do you do that, by the way? Seems inconvenient.

W: Shows how much you know. From this perspective I find all the good stuff that the woodpeckers and chickadees miss when they travel up the tree.

A: What’s good stuff do you mean?

W: Insect larvae, beetles, ants, caterpillars, stinkbugs, spiders. In the winter many insects sleep under the tree bark, which makes them easy pickings.

A: Ugh, sounds delicious. What’s wrong with nuts and seeds?

W: Nothing – I eat those too. When I find a large nut, I shove it under some tree bark and use my sharp beak to hack open the shell. That’s where my name comes from: “nut-hack” became “nut-hatch.” Get it?

A: I guess so. How are you able to travel upside down without falling off the tree?

W: I have special equipment. My back toe has a wicked scythe-like claw that keeps me anchored. The curved claws on my front toes grip the bark so I don’t slide down. And my adorable short stubby tail braces me against the tree trunk.

A: Cool! Those adaptations sound quite similar to a woodpecker. You even have a long thin bill like a woodpecker. Are you related?

W: Nope, we belong to two different bird families. Woodpeckers have two toes that face backwards, while I have one. They travel up a tree, while I travel down. And woodpeckers have harder heads- no insult intended. They have special skulls that protect them from concussions when they drill into a tree. If I tried to do that, it would give me a headache. I use my beak to lift bark and reach into crevices, not to make holes.

A: Fair enough. Oh look, there’s another white-breasted nuthatch! Do you know them?

W: Yes I do- she’s my mate. She’s on the look-out for other nuthatches who may try to invade our territory. We have a lot of good stuff cached in these trees to get us through the winter, and we don’t want to lose it.

A: You’re pretty territorial for a cute little bird.

W: For good reason. We stay in this territory all year long –it’s where we raise our chicks. We need to make sure there’s enough food to go around. When we’re raising babies, I’ll make over 100 trips a day to the nest delivering fresh-caught insects. It’s exhausting!

A: No kidding! Where do you make your nest?

W: We usually nest in a natural cavity or abandoned woodpecker hole. Like I said, making holes is not in our wheelhouse. We prefer to recycle existing ones. My mate takes care of interior decorating, lining the hole with fur, bark, and dirt to make it nice and snug. For the eggs, she makes a snug cup out of grass, shredded bark, and feathers. We’re thrifty and will often use the same nest for multiple years.

A: Who incubates the eggs?

W: My mate takes care of sitting on the eggs. It’s my job is to bring her food so she can stay on the nest.  

A: Sounds like she’s well taken care of. I just noticed that she’ll often look up from foraging, with her head at a 90-degree angle from the tree. Is she posing for you?

W: No, though I’m not averse to the idea. She’s checking for predators. When you’re a tiny bird, the world is a dangerous place. That’s why we’ve joined the resident chickadee gang this winter – for our protection.

A: Really, a chickadee gang? That doesn’t sound very scary.

W: Well, it helps to have more eyes on the look-out for predators. There’s safety in numbers, you know.

A: I suppose. But won’t the chickadees compete with you for food?

W: Not really –remember they go up the tree, we go down. Chickadees are also really good at finding food, and they lead us to the best places. And while they have an aggressive intra-species pecking order, they leave us in peace. It’s a pretty sweet deal to hang out with the chickadees.  

A: Okay, understood. What about Red-breasted Nuthatches, do you ever hang out with them?

W: On occasion. We prefer deciduous forests, while our red-breasted cousins like coniferous forests. They’re all about those conifer cones. In fact, Red-breasted Nuthatches are spread much more broadly than we are in Canada, because so much of the country is coniferous forest.

A: Very cool. Well, I’ll leave you to your foraging. Say hi to the chickadee gang for me.

W: Will do.


About Amelia

I am passionate about communicating great ideas, particularly science and health ideas.

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