The Active White-breasted Nuthatch

August 23, 2022

This morning, before the temperature got too hot, I was walking through a beautiful stand of valley oaks when I began counting the different species of birds that were flying about them looking for food in the branches and trunks of the trees. I heard the familiar nasal calls of the White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis. A group of four or five of them, perhaps a family, maneuvered head down the trunks of the large and graceful valley oaks. These particular oaks were festooned with elongated Ramalina net lichen and other species of lichen, which was where the nuthatches were searching for insects. Their main food source includes insects and spiders, but they do eat seeds, especially large meaty seeds like sunflowers in the fall and winter. Cornell bird library states, “They get their common name from their habit of jamming large nuts and acorns into tree bark, then whacking them with their sharp bill to “hatch” out the seed from the inside.”

There are three resident species of nuthatches in California, two that live in the Willits Valley and one that is found on our coast. White-breasted and the Red-breasted Nuthatches are found here in the Willits Valley. The Red-breasted Nuthatch prefers evergreen trees such as Douglas fir and cedar, while the White-breasted seems to prefer deciduous oaks and other trees. The Pygmy Nuthatch lives on the coast where it prefers bishop and Monterey pines. In the western pine forests of the mountains, ponderosa and Jeffrey pines are a favorite of the Pygmy Nuthatch.

The White-breasted Nuthatch has a black cap with a bluish-grey body, and the breast and belly are always pure white. White-breasted Nuthatches are larger than Red-breasted Nuthatches. Their tails are short, with black outer tail feathers displaying large white spots. The bill is long and slender and is sometimes held straight up. They use their bill to pry into crevasses of tree bark while either looking for insects and spiders to eat or caching the seeds or insects they’ve already caught for another time. White-breasted Nuthatches are quite loud talking with each other back and forth, making a ‘quit,quit,quit,’ or a slurred ‘yank’ sound. They are cavity nesters but rarely excavate their own cavity, instead using woodpecker holes or natural cavities, lining their nests with leaves, hair, or fur. Male and female White-breasted Nuthatches stay together while raising the young. The males are territorial throughout the year. They join flocks of Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Oak Titmice, and other birds in the winter to form large congregations called feeding flocks as a deterrent to predators. More eyes and ears make for a safer time while foraging. In the early spring I hear the male nuthatches sing an interesting song that I only hear at the beginning of breeding season that sounds like a little trumpet. White-breasted Nuthatches will use bird boxes to nest in and come to feeders filled with sunflower seed, so it is easy to observe them in your own yard. They are personable birds and sometimes will stop and stare at a person who is looking at them. A reliable and permanent resident of the Willits Valley, White-breasted Nuthatches are entertaining to watch any time of the year.