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A Bird in Hand

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A Bird in Hand

Nuthatches: faithful residents of our winter wonderland

Here is a genus of birds that are common in seemingly everywhere in the summer, common around our feeders in the winter, and whose calls are often heard in that background cacophony of forest music that makes hiking and camping in our area so enjoyable. These birds are in so many ways common, but in others quite the opposite. Let’s discover the wonders of these wee little birds, the nuthatches.

There are three species of the genus Sitta that you might be able to identify in our area, the white-breasted, the red-breasted, and the pygmy. Let’s start with the heavyweight and then descend down the scale, not that any of these little fellows would need to join Weight Watchers. But size is relative and the largest of our trio is the white-breasted.

As the name suggests the most obvious feature of this bird is its white breast. Of course, this wouldn’t be obvious if you had never seen its cousin, the red-breasted. So knowing that the bird has a white breast, how does one differentiate it from a similar sized colored bird, such as a black-capped chickadee? Though nuthatches and chickadees might flock together at your feeder, they are not at all similar nor related. When compared to a chickadee, the white-breasted nuthatch will have a far flatter skull, giving a profile that is nothing like the large, round-headed chickadee. In addition, the nuthatch has a much longer beak and with a distinctive upward curve to it. This beak is a serious tool with which the bird uses to split open seeds, or as its old English name suggests, to hatch them. The white-breasted nuthatch also has the black cap and steely gray (though darker) wing and back coloration of the black-capped chickadee, but without the black bib. Instead, the white-breasted nuthatch is white from its eyeballs to its belly button, assuming it has a belly button. The vent area will be a light rust color. For reference purposes, the white-breasted nuthatch is typically 5.75 inches in length.

The red-breasted nuthatch is a size smaller than its white-breasted cousin. The red-breasted is a scant 4.5 inches long, though you may not really sense the size difference unless the two birds are competing over the same morsel. You might more commonly see the red-breasted over the white-breasted in your particular area as this smaller bird favors conifers, whereas the white-breasted favors deciduous trees—though this difference is not absolute. Besides the red-breast another noteworthy field mark to help identify this bird is a cool black racing stripe from the beak, through the eye, and then towards the back of the head. Also the red coloring on the bird’s breast might only be a pale rusty hue. The eye-stripe will then be the definitive marker to differentiate between the two species.

The last of the three nuthatches you might be lucky enough to see is the pygmy. This bird’s name might really be a misnomer. While it is a scant quarter inch shorter than the red-breasted in length, according to my Sibley Guide to Birds it actually outweighs the red-breasted. Nonetheless, not being one to split feathers, the size difference is insignificant. Instead, note the solid brown cap that covers the head to down below eye level. And there may also be a black eye strip, though it might not be distinctive enough to be visible. The bird will also have a white throat and buff-colored belly.

What makes nuthatches in general remarkable is their ability to descend a tree head first. This is a rare feat among birds, but quite the norm with our trio of Sitta. They are also able to hang upside down while feeding. Nuthatches are normally insectivores in the summer, switching to seeds and nuts in the winter. As stated above, they get their name by their habit of pinning a nut into the bark of a tree and splitting it open with its chisel-like beak. I have watched this behavior at a bird feeder, the bird wedging the target sunflower seed into a seam of the wood.

Nuthatches are cool little birds. Common, but unique. Different, but much the same. I guess that they are just like people! Happy birding. Photo by Eddie Callaway.

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, nuthatch, white-breasted nuthatch, red-breasted nuthatch, pygmy nuthatch

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