Foam Lake Birding No. 32

No. 32
This week, I will be writing about a new family of birds – the nuthatches. With their black caps and white faces, they look a lot like Chickadees at first glance. However, upon closer examination the differences begin to stand out. Chickadees have black bibs; nuthatches do not. Nuthatches have long chisel-shaped bills; Chickadees have short pointed ones. Once a nuthatch is identified as such, other characteristics are worth noting.
Nuthatches have strong bills and powerful neck muscles allowing them to peck open a hazelnut and eat the meat inside. That being said, they are not capable of pecking out wood to make nests in trees the way woodpeckers do. A very interesting characteristic that distinguishes them from all other birds, except the Black and White Warblers, is their habit of moving down tree trunks head first. Nobody is quite sure why this behavior evolved; but one explanation is that can see prey from the top looking down. Thus they can spot prey missed by other tree clinging birds, such as woodpeckers, that see their prey from the bottom up. Whatever the reason, it certainly is interesting to watch them feed.
There are three different species of nuthatches in Canada. Two of them, the White Breasted and the Red Breasted, are common here; the third one, the Pygmy Nuthatch, is found only in British Columbia in the southern Okanagan Valley.
The males and females of both the Red and White Breasted are very similar with the males being a little more colourful. The sexes of the Pygmy are alike. This anomaly is quite puzzling as all three nuthatches are closely related. Nothing is neat and tidy in the bird’s world.
Nuthatches are permanent residents that, for the same reasons as many other permanent residents, are seldom seen in the summer – especially in towns. In winter, they will readily come to feeders eating the same food stuffs as Chickadees do. They are very quick moving agile birds that seem to be constantly in motion. When feeding they behave much as Chickadees do, except they fly farther away to eat the seed. Like Chickadees, they can be quite confiding.
Quite often, nuthatches can be identified before they are seen. Both make similar hoarse tooting sounds resembling those made on a child’s tin horn. Some people hear the sound as a little grunt; others hear it as a small quack. The White Breasted sounds more like the former; the Red Breasted sounds more like the latter. Once heard, the sound is easy to remember.
The name, nuthatch, has at times evoked a little measure of humour. One does tend to imagine an addled little bird sitting on a nest full of acorns trying to hatch them! Actually, the origins of the name go back to the time when Britain started to colonize the Americas. Early colonist noticed that the bird would pick up a nut; fly to a convenient perch; and, then proceed to peck at the nut until the shell gave way exposing the meat. The colonists named the bird a Nut Hack, because of the way it hacked at the nut with its bill. With the English language being what it is, the name, Nut Hack, was slowly corrupted to the present name, Nuthatch.
This week’s photo is of our largest nuthatch – the sparrow-sized, White Breasted Nuthatch. The picture was taken in Winnipeg and shows the bird in classic nuthatch pose – moving downward with the head pointed out parallel to the ground. As you watch for the White Breasted Nuthatch, be prepared to see the Red Breasted. It, too, is very common, especially at feeders.