A Nuthatch Party

By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw

I have a cluster of bird feeders outside my house. There is a globular plastic one that holds sunflower seeds, a hardware cloth cylinder full of peanut parts, a ‘thistle sock’, and another one that dispenses energy from a suet block. This particular morning, all of these have been descended upon by a very industrious group of Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Whenever I hear these vocal little birds, I always think of Edith Andrews’ pronouncement that they sound like the little party horns we used to toot way on at birthday parties as children. Indeed all these nuthatches are honking away on slightly different pitches, some bursting into little whinnies in their enthusiasm. It’s a marvelous chorus. Roger Tory Peterson says that when a group is alarmed by an owl, the result sounds like a virtual symphony. Bent refers to them as talkative, irrepressible, woodland gnomes.

This is a good year for Red-breasted Nuthatches. I say a ‘good year’ because some years are not. Nuthatches are an invasive species. Whether they come to visit us here on Nantucket depends on a series of complex factors, the chief of which is whether they have a good cone crop up north. They can stay up there if there’s plenty to eat. It is also dependent on whether they have a good breeding year on their nesting grounds, as many of the ones that visit us in the winter are hatch year birds. Last winter, we had almost no nuthatches on the island.

Our Christmas Bird Counts illustrate the pattern: 1997 – 88; 1998 – 10; 1999 – 79; 2000 – 13; 2001 – 110; 2002 – 1. Their cousins, the White-breasted Nuthatches, are also cyclical here, having peaked with 12 in 2001, but only 1 in 2002 and this year we are seeing no White-breasts at all!

Before going further, I better tell you a bit about how to recognize a nuthatch. They are known as the ‘up-side-down’ birds. If you see a bird working its way vertically down a tree trunk, it is undoubtedly a nuthatch. My friend, Peter, pointed out that he recognized a bird as a nuthatch because of its ‘up-side-down-ness’. Try that one in your Scrabble game!

Red-breasted Nuthatches are among our smallest birds, only 4 ½ inches from beak to tail. Hummingbirds are just a little shorter, 3 ¾ inches. But nuthatches are chunky, and they have almost no tails at all! Red-breasts are rusty red underneath and slate blue on the back. The males show a sharp definition between the color on their backs and the black on top of their heads.

One of my first experiences with this species was as a boy out in the old Mothball Pines at the end of the Cisco Road, birding with my childhood chum, Billy Cassidy. This in the mid fifties and it was a big flight year for Red-breasted Nuthatches. They were all around us, honking away in the pines. Then, we found a tiny nuthatch, lying on his back on the ground with a pine needle protruding from its breast like a sword. We picked it up and felt its little heartbeat, vibrating away at a frantic rate. Thinking we were aiding it, we pulled out the pine needle and the little bird died almost immediately. This was quite traumatic for all concerned, and we agonized -- should we have removed the needle? Anyway, I think we buried the little fellow out there while his mates continuing to serenade us.

So, these nuthatches are abundant here some winters, scarce in others. As spring comes, most of them leave us, but a few stay on through the summer and have been found to nest in the State Forest. Nuthatches are hole nesters, and spend a lot of time tapping on surfaces, listening for just the right echo to learn if there is a cavity within. They also have the curious custom of coating the lower surface of their nesting hole with pitch, flying back and forth repeatedly with small amounts of this sticky substance to smear it onto the bark. It’s thought that this is to discourage predators. Nuthatches are the only birds known to fly directly into their nest hole without even perching on the way. This must make for quite a spectacular sight for the nestlings!

Nuthatches get their name from ‘nut hack’. They take a seed and wedge it into a bark crevice, and then bash away at it until it opens. They don’t hold them in their feet like chickadees do. If you put out sunflower seeds in your bird feeders, you should have Red-breasted Nuthatches this winter. You do need a bird feeder as they seldom feed on the ground. They are very adept at clinging, so feeders that cater to that adaptation work well. A peanut feeder is even better. Ask for one of the wire mesh feeders designed for that. Then listen for the sound of a party going on when you venture outside. Nuthatches know how to party!

If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.

To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.