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Feathered Friends – Nuthatches more prominent once leaves have left trees

A white-breasted nuthatch grabs a single sunflower seed at a feeder before flying elsewhere to enjoy its meal. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

With most trees now bare of their leaves, some birds become much more noticeable in late autumn and early winter. A recent email from Mary Beierle, a resident of Elizabethton, Tennessee, reminded me of one of the birds that has become much more evident at the feeders in recent weeks.

“I would like to mention a little bird that I have noticed at my feeders,” Mary wrote. She added that she had noticed the bird previously in early spring and again now that fall’s arrived.

“It took awhile to find the little guy in my bird books, but I have identified it as a white-breasted nuthatch,” she shared in her email.

“I really look forward to seeing this bird with his long beak,” Mary wrote. “He feeds alongside the chickadees and goldfinches. Perhaps you can do a column on this interesting small bird.”

Late November’s a perfect time to profile the nuthatches. I use the plural since there are actually more than one species of nuthatch that can be encountered in the region. The United States is home to four species of nuthatches: white-breasted, red-breasted, brown-headed and pygmy. Of these four species, the white-breasted nuthatch is probably the member of this family of birds most often observed in yards throughout the region. Because of their gravity-defying antics, the white-breasted nuthatch and other members of the family can provide hours of entertainment at our bird feeders. With their “ank, ank” calls they’re also almost as reliable as an alarm clock. In recent weeks I have been hearing the calls of white-breasted nuthatches every morning outside my bedroom window.

Individual white-breasted nuthatches will follow a single-minded path along the trunk of a tree or a branch on the way to a feeder. An individual nuthatch rarely varies from this path. It’s amusing to watch the jerky progress along the trunk as this bird prepares for a flight to a feeder holding sunflower seeds or a hanging wire basket of suet. Nuthatches don’t linger on the feeder. Instead, one of these birds will grab a single seed or a morsel of suet and fly away to enjoy their food away from the hurly-burly concentrated around the feeder. They will also stash surplus food in hidden caches to help supplement their diet during periods of winter scarcity.

The red-breasted nuthatch is an occasional winter visitor to yards throughout the region. These tiny birds can also be found during the summer months in the conifers atop some of the region’s tallest mountains. Smaller than the related white-breasted nuthatch, the red-breasted nuthatch has a tell-tale call that like little tin horns. The red-breasted nuthatch, perhaps because it spends so much of the year in more remote areas, can also be amazingly tame when it pays a winter visit.

As Mary mentioned in her email, nuthatches often affiliate with flocks of various species of birds. At our feeders, the nuthatches are often observed in the company of such birds as downy woodpecker, Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse and an occasional golden-crowned kinglet or brown creeper.

These birds are named “nuthatch” for the habit of some species to wedge a large seed in a crack and hack at it with their strong bills. I have dubbed them “upside-down birds” because gravity doesn’t seem much of a consideration as they go about their daily routines.

As a family, the nuthatches number about 25 species worldwide and display the greatest diversity across Europe and Asia. The brown-headed nuthatch, which is a species native to the southeastern United States also ranges into the Caribbean islands of the Bahamas. The pygmy nuthatch of the American southwest also ranges into Mexico. One species — the Algerian nuthatch — is the only representative of the family in Africa. Not discovered until 1975, this nuthatch is also an endangered species with fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs found in four areas of mountainous Algeria.

Some nuthatches have been given descriptive common names, including the chestnut-bellied nuthatch, white-tailed nuthatch, velvet-fronted nuthatch, sulphur-billed nuthatch, beautiful nuthatch and giant nuthatch. The last bird on the list is indeed the largest of the nuthatches and lives in the mountains of southwestern China and northern Thailand.

Both the white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches can be easily pleased with most feeder fare, such as sunflower seeds, peanuts, and commercial suet and peanut butter cakes. Away from our feeders, both these species feed heavily on insects during the summer months. Seeds, nuts and some fruit make up their diet during the colder months when insects are less prevalent. Offer them some of their favorite foods and they will repay you with endless hours of amusing antics. The nuthatch is indeed one bird that’s not hesitant to sing for its supper.


Do you have a bird enthusiast on your Christmas shopping list. The 2018 calendar produced by the Lee and Lois Herndon Chapter of Tennessee Ornithological Society, also known as the Elizabethton Bird Club, features full-color photographs of dozens of colorful birds. The club sells the calendars for $15 each. They make great Christmas gifts. All proceeds are used to support birding opportunities and bird-related causes. The calendar also features an informative calendar grid with highlights for major holidays, as well as important bird-related dates.

If you’re interested in obtaining a calendar, contact [email protected] by email. Calendars will also be available for purchase by cash or check only at the offices of the Erwin Record, 218 Gay St. Erwin, and Herald and Tribune, 702 W. Jackson, Blvd., Jonesborough.