Bird Watcher's General Store

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Nuthatch Strategy

Dear Bird Folks:

We have a place in Brewster, but reside in NJ most of the year. We seem to attract the same types of birds at both locales, but there appears to be a much larger nuthatch population on the Cape. How can I attract more nuthatches in NJ? Why do nuthatches walk down the tree upside-down and would they, in fact, still recognize me if I stood on my head in the front yard?
-Dave and Debby, Brewster and NJ


Really Deb and Dave,

Did it really take two of you to write this question? Who’s idea was the headstand part? Hopefully the one with the best looking legs. Too bad one of you didn’t think to mention which species of nuthatch you were asking about. I guess it’s hard to think straight after standing on your head all day.

I’ll hope you guys are talking about White-breasted Nuthatches, because that’s what I feel like writing about today. Dressed much like a chickadee, but shaped like a stubby banana, nuthatches do indeed walk upside-down and right-side-up or any other direction they feel like walking. They are easy to see at our feeders, but even easier to hear on a walk in the woods. Nuthatches travel in pairs and seem to never stop talking to each other. A nasal “yank yank yank, yank yank yank”, like the endless nagging of a back seat driver can be heard whenever a nuthatch is in the area.

Nuthatches aren’t big time migrants. Like the characters in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” nuthatches live their entire lives in the same area in which they were hatched. They only move about in the winter if food becomes scarce or if there is a wedding to attend. In the winter nuthatches hang out in loose flocks, with small numbers of chickadees, titmice, woodpeckers, creepers, and kinglets. By hanging out in mixed flocks, nuthatches have the protection of a flock without having to compete for food. We all have seen flocks of finches or sparrows fighting when they discover a food source, much like a bus tour at a buffet. By traveling with different species, nuthatches are able to avoid competition. This leads to one of your questions. Why do they walk upside down?

Most creepers and woodpeckers find food by walking up the tree. By walking down head first, nuthatches are able to find bugs that the other birds can’t see. It is not that the other birds wouldn’t like to find this other source of bugs, but they aren’t built that way. The nuthatch has extra long toes with sharp toenails that allow it to cling to the tree with one foot, while it braces itself with the other. Woodpeckers and creepers use their tails as a brace and that would cause them to flip over if they tried to walk down the tree headfirst.

Nuthatches defend a territory year round. That means one pair of nuthatches will keep all the others away. Your New Jersey birds of the hood are not letting others in. However, some people are lucky enough to live on the edge of several nuthatch territories. Where the territories overlap, many pairs can be found. That may explain why you have more nuthatches in Brewster. You are probably on the boundary of more than one nuthatch territory. It has nothing to do with Cape Cod being a better place to live than New Jersey, that would be a ridiculous thing to think, so don’t even think it. I don’t even know why you brought it up. (There, that should get me off the hook.)

And yes, the nuthatches would most assuredly recognize you, even if you were to stand on your head. However, Debbie, if you are going to stand on your head, remember not to wear your hoop skirt and Dave may want to leave his kilt in the closet.