The interesting behavior of a white-breasted nuthatch
The white-breasted nuthatch is an odd-looking fellow, and though he is often seen alone, he is actually in good company, as he belongs to a small band of our most common backyard feeder birds. With his long body, full breast and thin pointed bill, the blue, black, and white colored nuthatch grabs our attention with his habit of creeping down tree trunks upside down. Yet the nuthatch offers birders much more than unusual appearance — it is a species with interesting behavior.
I remember being a bit surprised when a nuthatch took up residence in my bluebird nest box, but my initial feelings of disappointment soon changed when I realized the opportunity of learning nuthatch nesting habits. Although they are more common than the bluebird, I had never observed the nuthatch at the nest and was intrigued. Right away, the male’s courtship displays of bowing and feather fanning fascinated me. Later, when the eggs hatched, I discovered their habit of sweeping the entrance of the nest box with their bills. I soon learned that they were smearing insects along the edge of the entrance hole. Apparently, the smeared insects leave an odorous residue that is offensive to potential predators such as squirrels.
When you look out at the feeder during the winter, you will notice the small band of birds that nuthatches associate with consist of chickadees and titmice, with downy woodpeckers and other species following along. These small flocks or groups usually number no more than 10 or 12 birds, and they follow the chickadees closely.
The followers or satellite species benefit considerably by doing this. Satellite species gain protection from predators through their association with the flock. The nuthatches let the chickadees and titmice work as sentinels.
Nuthatches use the flock to find food, too. In fact, studies have shown that nuthatches working by themselves during winter months had poorer nutrition than those associated with chickadees. It seems that traveling along through the woods with another species allows birds to encounter micro habitats that they may have otherwise passed over, and chickadees, being very intelligent, are good birds to follow.
The nuthatches also benefit from the alarm vocalizations emitted from chickadees. Without this sense of security, nuthatches are far more conservative in behavior and stay close to cover while feeding. Chickadees mate for life and travel in pairs that comprise the inner flock. It is believed that the bond between pairs keeps male chickadees ready to call in an alarm to protect the mate from predators.
To the human ear, one chickadee call sounds like any other, but hidden variations in each call carry significant amounts of information. When a predator enters the feeding area or is circling high above the woodlot, the call of the chickadee can relay the nature of the threat, whether it is from the air, from the ground, or coming in fast through the trees. Nuthatches are able to understand these calls and can decide accordingly on how to act or not act.
But as spring approaches and chickadees break away, the satellite species will have to rely on their own vigilance. A special bond, it would seem difficult to say goodbye, but nuthatches don’t seem to mind. Perhaps they too are plenty thrilled at the coming of spring, melting snow, the sound of running water, and the sweet music of chickadees calling for their mates on gentle breezes in the warmth of late February’s noontime sun.
Robert Tougias is a Colchester birding author. His book “Birder on Berry Lane” is available. You can ask him questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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