White- & Red-breasted Nuthatch
Nuthatches are droll little birds, entertaining backyard birdwatchers with their habit of making their way through life upside down as they search for tiny invertebrates and seeds hidden in crevices in the bark of trees. They are also frequent visitors to feeders throughout the northeastern United States, often taking sunflower seeds, the hulls of which they peck open with several direct blows with their long, pointed bill.
This method of opening seeds and nuts is probably the origin of the bird’s name, since “nuthatch” is a corruption of “nut-hack.” Nuthatches hack at nuts to open them and do not, as the name suggests, try to incubate them in their nests in place of their eggs, which habit would have put an end to nuthatches long ago.
There are two species of nuthatches in New York State, by far the more common in our area being the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). The White-breasted Nuthatch is a small bird, only a little larger and stockier than a chickadee, with a similar plumage: largely white underparts, a gray back, wings, and tail, and a black to dark gray cap. Nuthatches, however, have longer bills than chickadees, and can be immediately picked out by their different foraging techniques. While a chickadee may land on the trunk of a tree, it will never continue “hitching” its way along it with its feet the way a nuthatch does.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is smaller than the White-breasted and, similarly, has mostly gray upper parts and a black cap, but is a warm orangey-salmon color underneath, and with a dark eye-stripe separated from the cap by a white line.
White-breasted Nuthatches are common permanent residents in our area, favoring deciduous woodlands, especially areas with good numbers of oaks and other nut-bearing trees, but can be found in quite suburban areas as well. The Red-breasted Nuthatch, while present as a breeder in a very few isolated locales in this area, is found in most places here only in fall through early spring. This species favors coniferous trees for breeding, but uses a wide variety of wooded habitats at other times of year.
Red-breasted Nuthatches often “irrupt” south from their main breeding range to our north when their main food, conifer seeds, is scarce. These irregular incursions result in much variability in their numbers here from year to year. Even in a good Red-breasted Nuthatch winter, however, their larger, more southern white-breasted relatives still almost always outnumber them.
Nuthatches are commonly spotted at feeders, and will chow down on both sunflower seeds and suet. Put up winter feeders to help supplement their winter food sources and enjoy these unique birds at the same time.