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Brown-headed Nuthatches

Dear Bird Folks,

A friend visiting from Georgia was impressed by the number of birds we have at our feeder. However, there was one bird that he claims to have at his feeders that we don’t get. He has Brown-headed Nuthatches. Do we ever see that kind of nuthatch around here?

– Ted, Plymouth, MA


Funny you should ask, Ted,

I just returned from visiting my daughter in North Carolina. While I’m there I make a habit of doing as much birding as possible. Not only is the birding good down there, but I also know it bugs my daughter. Nothing embarrasses a twenty-something more than having her old man sit down at dinner and tell all of her friends about my day spent looking at birds. And as soon as everyone becomes comfortable with that I start talking about being a vegetarian. That pretty much clears the room. In the part of North Carolina where my daughter lives meat is used as currency. Even their toothpaste is barbeque flavored.

I was last in NC in early January, right in the middle of that crazy cold spell that had spread into the Deep South. It was the perfect time to be there. The extreme cold meant no snakes, no bugs and no snakes. On one rather chilly day I found a wonderful little birding spot in Carolina Beach State Park. As I hiked a short nature trail, I come upon a small wetland that was packed with life. The sun was hitting the surrounding trees just right and birds came from all directions to catch the rays and gain some warmth. Cardinals, bluebirds, waxwings, chickadees, sapsuckers and warblers all buzzed about eating berries or any hidden insects they could find. As I stood there, just enjoying the spectacle of it all, I was not prepared for the next group of birds that were about to enter the mix. A flock of Brown-headed Nuthatches descended upon the tree in front of me like a gray-brown snow squall; instantly it was show time.

Brown-headed Nuthatches are tiny birds with even tinier voices, but their arrival filled the air with so much energy that all of the other birds seemed to fade into the background. Over a dozen of these manic birds came pouring down the tree like mini clowns tumbling out of a Volkswagen, crawling over the branches from every angle imaginable, all the while yapping and scolding in their comical voices. The song/call of the Brown-headed Nuthatch is one of the funniest noises made by any bird in the bird world. They sound exactly like a cheap dog toy…you know, those creepy rubber things that look like a red and white pork chop, which squeaks every time a dog clamps down on it. Now imagine a dozen tiny birds all making that same squeezey sound as they bound about above your head. Being the sophisticated birder that I am, I immediately burst out laughing. After five minutes of watching these avian Keystone Kops I walked back to my car. I was too tired from laughing to do any more birding, plus I couldn’t wait to get back to my daughter’s condo to tell her friends my exciting bird story. Some parents’ goal is to see their children became doctors or pro athletes. My goal is to embarrass my kids as much as possible.

While these birds may seem comical, and they totally do, they are far from clueless. In reality, they are rather resourceful little birds. Because they are so small their beaks aren’t able to peel away a lot of the thick tree bark, which is where the best insects hide. Instead of being frustrated and cursing Mother Nature for giving them such modest beaks, the nuthatches simply take a smaller chunk of bark and use it to pry away the thicker pieces. This makes them one of the few birds, or creatures of any kind, that can select and use tools. Regrettably, not all these birds use their clever skills properly. When I got back to the parking lot, one of the nuthatches was using a piece of bark to pry open my car door and steal my lunch. I had to use pepper spray to save my PB&J.

Unfortunately for us Northerners, we have to head south if we ever want to see – or hear – some Brown-headed Nuthatches. They are obsessed with old growth Southern pine trees and rarely go anyplace where the trees aren’t. Unlike the wandering White-winged Doves we talked about last week, these birds have zero wanderlust. They don’t migrate, go on vacation or even read National Geographic. For the most part, they live and die within a few miles of where they were born and they are nearly always born somewhere in the southeastern quarter of the United States. They don’t even know that New England exists, although they reportedly watch Red Sox games via satellite TV.

I think you should go visit your friend in Georgia, Ted. It’s about time you mooched off of him for a change. There is a lot of good birding in that part of the world but it would be worth the long trip just to see their highly entertaining Brown-headed Nuthatches. Just remember to pack your barbeque-flavored toothpaste and some extra meat in case you want to buy something.