Francis Stella, a Michigan poet who writes wildlife poetry, once wrote of the ubiquitous white-breasted nuthatch:
“From bark to bark he darts in flight,
This craning no-neck woodland sprite —
Our all-season tree inspector
And invertebrate collector
Who claims old tree-holes for his den.
Part woodpecker, and partly wren,
And bearing feathers that would place
Him in a pygmy blue-jay race,
He barely sings, he doesn’t drum,
But climbing up and down the plumb
Not only facing up but down
Is the nuthatch’s renown.”
Indeed. Nuthatches. What interesting birds they are. Here in our region, we have two species, the white-breasted and the red-breasted nuthatch. Though similar to woodpeckers in both behavior and appearance, nuthatches belong to an entirely different family: Sittidae. Woodpeckers, on the other hand, are members of the family Picidae. Two other species of nuthatches inhabit other regions of the United States. The brown-headed nuthatch makes its home in the pines of the Deep South, Florida, and parts of the East Coast, while the pygmy nuthatch inhabits the west, throughout the Rockies and into Mexico.
Of the nuthatches, the white-breasted nuthatch is the most widespread of them all. The species range extensively across most of the United States as well as much of southern Canada and parts of Mexico. Both species that reside here in Minnesota, the white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, are year-round residents, which, in my book, make these birds even more appealing. Any bird that spends its winter here in Minnesota is a bird worthy of our admiration.
One of the many interesting behaviors typical of nuthatches is their habit of clinging upside down on tree trunks. Though other birds are nearly as acrobatic, like chickadees, woodpeckers, and brown creepers, only nuthatches inch their way down a tree headfirst in their search for food. Squirrels approach their descents in similar fashion, whereas woodpeckers climb trees by working their way upward.
And there’s more. Nuthatches have exceptional spatial memories. In other words, these little birds are experts in remembering where they cache, or hide, their seeds and foodstuffs. While you watch a birdfeeder note what happens when a nuthatch arrives. Like chickadees, they don’t stay long for you to observe them. In the case of sunflower seeds, a white-breasted nuthatch will extract several sunflower seeds from the feeder before making off with one.
What these birds are doing is literally weighing the seeds (other birds do this too). Much like we mentally weigh a fruit or vegetable at the supermarket by hefting it in our hand before deciding on its purchase, nuthatches are testing the weight of individual seeds to find out if what’s inside is worth their time and energy. They do this quickly of course, rejecting seeds and dropping them to the ground below. Then, finding a suitable seed, they fly away with it.
What the birds do next with the seed depends on its hunger, I suppose. If its mission is to save it for later consumption, the nuthatch will stuff the seeds into crevices of trees, under bark, and the like, and will return to the birdfeeder over and over again to do the same thing. If they are hungry you will discover how the nuthatch got its namesake. When a nuthatch wants to break open a seed’s shell, it will secure the seed into the bark or crevice of a limb or tree trunk and repeatedly “hack” away at the seed’s shell with its bill until it can extract the prize inside.
Perhaps “nuthack” would be a more appropriate and understandable name. And getting back to the birds’ memory: nuthatches have the extraordinary ability to recall its hiding places and, thus, its food. During severe winter weather it is important for animals like nuthatches, chickadees, squirrels, fox, and others, to be able to cache foods to eat and readily locate when times are lean. Nuthatches hide seeds all day long and are able to locate a vast majority of their hidden morsels when necessary.
So designed are nuthatches bodies for an upside down lifestyle, that the birds appear ill equipped for upright mobility. Truly, seeing an upright perching nuthatch is rare, they are much more comfortable clinging upside down underneath a limb or suet feeder than they are at other angles—which is what Francis Stella references at the poem’s conclusion:
“He bills one seed then off he flits
And on a tree that seed he splits
To have the kernel —hence his name,
And soon he’s back for just the same.
The way he cranes about to see
When scaling up or down a tree!
This no-neck with his upturned beak
Could use a chiropractic tweak —
And music lessons, in our view,
But no-neck is no-nonsense too.
And with the nuthatch we won’t wrangle.
We see things from a different angle.”
Worldwide there are 25 species of nuthatches and wallcreepers. To be able to look outdoors and see two species (and the closely related brown creeper) of these specialized little birds inching their way down a tree headfirst and sometimes vocalizing their “yank, yank, yank” nasal-sounding call, is a gratifying experience. And what’s more, we can observe these species all yearlong as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.