The White-breasted Nuthatch

There is still a lot of bird activity happening in Little Lake Valley as we have entered summertime.  Juvenile birds chase their parents around, begging loudly for food while the parents madly gather insects and other edible items for these hungry young. White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis, is our largest nuthatch in Mendocino County. The Pygmy Nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea, is found mostly along the coast while the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis, prefers the evergreen fir and pine forests. Both of these nuthatches are smaller than the more common White-breasted Nuthatch, which is found inland. White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches can be found in the Willits area and can both frequent the same bird feeder especially if it is loaded with sunflower seeds! Upon researching the White-breasted Nuthatch I learned that they favor hulled sunflower seeds because it takes them less time to eat them.

The White-breasted Nuthatch is a common sight among the large valley oaks and ash trees of Little Lake Valley. While I was out checking our wildlife cameras, I noticed two White-breasted Nuthatches above me noisily moving down the bark of an oak tree.

They use their sharp long beaks to pry into all the crevices in the bark, filling their bills with what look like tiny insects. Taking photos of these agile and fast-moving small birds is always a challenge but I patiently wait for a still moment and take some shots. Their short tails and flat posture against the trunk of the trees show me how they can hide themselves from predators. When White-breasted Nuthatches are out on a limb, they appear to be tapping their bills up and down into small gaps in the branches. Their nasally calls are all around me, different from the higher pitched repeated calls that the males emit in March and April.

The name ‘Nuthatch’ came from Old English ‘Nut Hack,’ because of the habit they have of jamming a seed or berry into a crevice and using their sharp, strong bill to hack at it. This may have been the behavior I was watching, but instead of seeds, they are finding spiders and other bugs.

The White-breasted Nuthatch male is compact, has no neck, and has a long, sharp, slightly upturned bill. It has a blue-gray back, white cheeks, and a black narrow cap. The belly is white with rusty spots of variable sizes near the tail. The females have a grayer cap. A nuthatch’s foot has one toe facing backward and three facing forward. They walk headfirst down trees, moving one foot at a time while the other foot’s toe holds onto the bark.

Some other interesting facts about these lively birds are that they are monogamous most of the year, spending time together and with the young. When winter comes, they join flocks of Chestnut-backed Chickadees and woodpeckers. This provides them with protection as these species sound the alarm readily when there is danger nearby. The females in a pair stay close enough to the male to talk with them, calling back and forth. They have been found to squish insects around their nesting cavity, called “bill sweeping” maybe to keep squirrels away, one of their predators. White-breasted Nuthatches are cavity nesters like the Western Bluebirds and Oak Titmice. They use the abandoned holes of woodpeckers, bird boxes, and other natural cavities.

The White-breasted Nuthatch is a species of least concern as their populations have increased each year by about 1% since 1966 and remains stable. However, as with other cavity-nesting birds they depend on dead or partially dead trees left standing.

If you do not have bird feeders to attract these resident birds, check oaks in your area or other large trees that might have cavities for them to nest in and listen for their distinctive nasal yanking sounds. Once you learn their vocalizations you will be surprised how many White-breasted Nuthatches there are around you.