Bark Acrobats: Nuthatches

by Pat Jaquith

White-breasted Nuthatch browsing the bark headfirst 4.27.16

We hit the jackpot on Nuthatch species– well, almost! Three of the four Nuthatch species in the US live here! We have Red-breasted, White-breasted, and Pygmy Nuthatches. While each has a favored tree species, our mixed forests are great places to see all of them. Nuthatches grab a seed, wedge it into a bark crevice and hammer it open as if using a hatchet – thus, their curious name! They are well-equipped for gleaning insects and seeds from all directions. Their clawed feet hook into bark providing sure traction as they cruise up, down, and around looking for food. While our environment provides everything they need, they are frequent visitors to bird feeders, gardens, and water holes, making even more opportunities to observe their acrobatic talents.

Red-breasted Nuthatch taking a seed on the fly from feeder 1.28.21

Nuthatches are attracted to seeds, suet, peanut butter and insects in my yard and garden. Here, I mixed as many seeds as possible into a couple cups of peanut butter, chilled it to make it easier to handle, and dropped it into a recycled produce bag. They cling to the bag or just grab and go.

Pygmy Nuthatch on White Pine cone “feeder” 1.15.20

Pygmy Nuthatches, the smallest of the three, come to feeders along with the larger species. Here, I had filled the spaces between the scales of a dried White pine cone with peanut butter, rolled it in mixed seed, and hung it in a Larch tree. I used Ponderosa Pine cones, too; seeing no difference in birds’ preference, I choose these and save my hands some discomfort.

White-breasted Nuthatch seeking insects on garden fence 9.14.15 Dried seed heads of sunflowers were popular feeding spots that fall, too.
Nuthatch, Red-breasted 11.03.15 searching for insects in the lichen
Red-breasted Nuthatch excavating nest hole 4.03.17

Nuthatches are cavity nesters. They excavate their own hole, as this one was doing in a dead Douglas fir snag; occasionally they use a provided nest box.

Pygmy Nuthatch at a nest hole it had customized in a crack on a dead Ponderosa Pine snag 4.08.19
7.22.20 Pig Farm trails

Nuthatches put their personal touches on nest holes. The chiseling and plastering of pitch around the opening are the work of a Red-breasted Nuthatch. It is presumed the pitch deters other birds from entering. Here, insects are trapped in the pitch.
Nuthatch and Juncoes in puddle 6.25.16 (Pig farm trails)
Pine Siskin and Red-breasted Nuthatch sharing a water hole in my yard 8.17.18

Providing water in your yard is a great way to attract birds. A shallow dip in a rock near by garden that holds only a couple cups of water is a favorite spot of some small birds. Observe those well-clawed toes, especially the big hook on the back toe of the Nuthatch!

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