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Nuthatch Behavior

Dear Bird Folks,

Last week I was thrilled to discover a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches nesting in the birdhouse in my backyard. Yesterday I noticed that the male nuthatch seemed to have something wrong with its beak. He was constantly scraping his long beak across the top of the birdhouse as if there was something on it, much like a person trying to rub a hunk of gum off the bottom of a shoe. Today the bird was again doing the same thing. I’m worried that he needs help getting that gum, pine sap or whatever, off his beak. Is there something wrong?

-Tommy, Rosewood, Ky


It’s Okay Tommy,

Your nuthatch is fine, he has nothing stuck in his beak. Here is what I think is going on. Even though Kentucky is a “red” state, most White-breasted Nuthatches are diehard Democrats. The bird you saw was simply trying to get the bitter taste of the November election out its mouth. Don’t worry, he’ll get over it, eventually.

Lucky for you Tommy, getting White-breasted Nuthatches to nest in your yard. They are one of the most entertaining of our cavity nesting birds. Some birds, like Black-capped Chickadees for example, barely let their presence be known. Usually they don’t hang out around the outside of their nest box, but instead fly directly inside the birdhouse without even knocking first. I love chickadees, but they are boring nesters. Some people don’t even realize that the box has been used until later, when they open the box to find an old nest and an unpaid phone bill.

White-breasted Nuthatches are showboat tenants. They are constantly crawling all over the outside of the box, looking as if they have forgotten where the entrance hole is. Instead of zipping into the hole in full flight, chickadee style, they often land on the attached tree and work their way down to the box and eventually into the nest. The chickadee is fairly quiet around the nest site, but the nuthatch won’t shut up. Their “yank, yank, yank” call is constant, even when alone. They never seem to stop muttering to themselves, as if they can’t figure out what to do next. See, I told you they were Democrats.

One of the White-breasted Nuthatches’ more odd nest site behaviors is called “bill sweeping” or, as you called it, “getting gum off a shoe.” Either one of the pair, or sometimes both, will sweep their bills back and fourth around the nesting area, particularly around the entrance hole. The bird will often have a crushed insect or piece of animal fur in its beak while it is sweeping.

You may ask, “fine, but why and what’s up with the dead stuff?” Good question. Bill sweeping is something that the eggheads with the clipboards have been working on for quite sometime. At this point they really don’t know why and that bugs the heck out them. The best that they can come up with is that by rubbing dead insects or bits of fur around the entrance hole, the odors somehow mask the bird’s own scent and thus protects the nest site from nuthatch sniffing predators.

Pretty weak theory eh? I guess it’s possible, but the last time I checked, insects and small fury animals were pretty high on most predators’ menu. Why would those smells keep anything away? The explanation for bill sweeping could be as simple as; the bird has a funky song stuck in its head and needs to finish grooving to it before it settles into the nest. Or, in the case of your male bird Tommy, he could have a little something going on “on the side” and he is merely wiping off the incriminating ruby red beak-gloss, before he get caught by his old lady.

Whether bill sweeping is understood or not, nuthatches are nevertheless fun birds to observe. What separates them from the rest of the pack is their ability to walk headfirst down a tree trunk. Chickadees, cardinals, robins, you name the bird, and it can’t walk headfirst down a tree. Even woodpeckers, the most tree dependent birds of all can’t do it. Birds typically keep their feet together, making headfirst balance difficult. But nuthatches spread their feet apart, front to back, like surfer dudes, thus giving them excellent balance and gorgeous tans.

Your birds aren’t in trouble Tommy, they are performing a ritual that all White-breasted Nuthatches do at their nest site. In a few short weeks, if all goes well, you could be seeing young nuthatches too. However, that all could change quickly if your male bird gets caught with ruby red beak-gloss on his beak. Then instead of seeing him walking down a tree trunk, you could see him standing before Judge Judy. Good luck to him.