When we went birding at the Ford House at the end of September, we were greeted by the unique calls of Red-breasted Nuthatches, who sound like squeaky toys. We heard this sound many times and in many different spots along our walk.
This year marks an irruption year for this species. An irruption is a heavy movement of a bird species from their usual wintering grounds. Experts have predicted this particular irruption based upon a lack of food supply in Ontario forests. Listen for the nasal “toot, toot, toot” calls, and check the cones of evergreens. You may just be rewarded with a look at these 4.5” birds, their striking eye lines running from beak to nape, with a distinct white supercilium (“eye brow”) above that. Red-breasted Nuthatches have slaty blue-gray backs and wings and, true to their name, a wash of brick red color on the breast. Check out the tail length – it is only slightly longer than their wings.
Red-breasted Nuthatches have a distinctive flight pattern, with an undulating movement as a result of quick bursts of the wings, followed by a glide. Watch them in flight and notice the shortness of the tail.
These birds are fairly tame and can be watched very closely as they forage for food. In fact, I have had them land on my feeder pole, waiting patiently for me to fill the feeder. Offer them sunflower, suet loaded with peanuts, and peanuts out of the shell to keep them coming back for the fats and protein they will need this winter. Now is the perfect time to try Bark Butter Bits, a small suet nugget that works well in the squirrel-proof feeder shown in the photo below. Spreadable Bark Butter also works well, either spread onto a tree trunk or a bark butter feeder.
When feeding in trees, Red-breasted Nuthatches stay preoccupied with cones, extracting the seeds with their long, chisel-shaped beaks. They tend to place seeds in the cracks of tree trunks, using their beaks to chisel the shells away. This motion is responsible for the British-derived name, “Nuthatch” as “hatch” was a term used instead of “hack” back when the bird was named. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Red-breasted Nuthatches is their habit of walking down the trunks of trees as well as under the limbs of the tree, in search of insects to consume. The toes of Nuthatches are perfect to accomplish this bark climbing – very long with sharp, long claws for gripping.
During winter, it is not uncommon for groups of these birds to shelter together in a tree cavity or nest box to maintain warmth. Remember to keep your nest boxes up after cleaning them, for you may be visited by this little sprite (and a friend or two).
Enjoy your birds!
Rosann Kovalcik, Owner
Wild Birds Unlimited, Grosse Pointe Woods
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