It was a bright sunny day a few weeks ago and I was walking the Chickadee Trail at the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge north of the district office. I had heard reports that there were white- breasted nuthatches in the tall pine trees north of the district office parking lot. Upon arrival I noticed a group of four white breasted birds in the top of the trees.
The white-breasted nuthatches didn’t really have much of a song that amounts to anything. They announce their presence with nasal “yank-yank-yank” calls. They’re such a dapper bird — all decked out in becoming black, blue-greys and whites that resemble a formal suit of clothes — as if they are dressed up for a special occasion.
A common feeder bird, the white-breasted nuthatches are active, agile little birds with an appetite for insects and large, meaty seeds. They get their common name from their habit of jamming large nuts and acorns into tree bark, then pecking them with their sharp bill to “hatch” out the seed from the inside. White-breasted nuthatches may be small but their voices are loud, and often their insistent nasal yammering will lead you right to them.
I could see why the nuthatch is often referred to as an “upside down bird” because they were going down rather than up the trunks of trees and then right back to the top of the tree to start over again. This acrobatic approach is profitable because woodpeckers and other bark-feeding birds almost always move upward as they forage for insects, allowing nuthatches to probe previously overlooked nooks and crannies.
The white-breasted nuthatch is monogamous, and pairs form following a courtship in which the male bows to the female, spreading his tail and drooping his wings while swaying back and forth; he also feeds her morsels of food. Females build the nest on their own, lining the nest cavity with fur, bark, and lumps of dirt. She then builds a nest cup of fine grass, shredded bark, feathers, and other soft material. White-breasted nuthatches often reuse their nest holes in subsequent years. The nest cavity is usually a natural hole in a decaying tree, sometimes an old woodpecker nest.
The nest hole is usually 10-40 feet high in a tree. The clutch is 5 to 9 eggs which are creamy-white, speckled with reddish brown. The eggs are incubated by the female for 13 to 14 days prior to hatching and the chicks fledge in approximately 18 to 26 days. Both parents feed the chicks in the nest and for about two weeks after fledging, and the male also feeds the female while she is incubating. Once independent, juveniles leave the adults’ territory and either establish their own territory or become “floaters,” unpaired birds without territories.
In contrast woodpeckers have longish still tails they use to brace against a tree trunk for support as they climb upward. Not requiring that sort of support when descending, the nuthatch’s tail is short and rounded. To keep themselves from tumbling to the ground as they wind downward, they utilize a long claw-like hind toe on each foot that anchors them to the tree.
The white-breasted nuthatch is a non-migrator. Their estimated average lifespan is two years, but the record is 12 years and nine months.
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