By Susan Thurn,
Cable Natural History Museum
“Yank, Yank, Yank,” came the sound from the trees near the bird feeder. Looking out, the small bird with clean black, gray, and white markings, became visible, headed down the tree face-first. The white-breasted nuthatch is a favorite for many of us who enjoy them around our homes.
The nuthatch name comes from their feeding habit that includes jamming nuts or seeds into the tree’s bark. They then pound at them with their sharp bill to get the seed inside. Seeds are as much as 70% of the white-breasted nuthatches winter diet, which they cache, or store, under loose bark or in tree crevices. They hide the food with a piece of moss, bark, lichen or snow. During the warm months, the white-breasted nuthatch will eat beetles, stink bugs, gall flies, scale insects, caterpillars, or ants. They have been observed feeding on the ground, and of course, enjoy feeding stations for sunflower seeds, nuts, or suet. When we see the birds making frequent, regular trips to the feeder and returning more quickly than it seems it would have taken them to eat the seeds, the nuthatches are most likely storing those seeds away for another day!
White-breasted nuthatches have some extremely interesting behaviors. As cavity nesters, they will often smear insects around the nest entrance to deter their main competitor for the same cavities, squirrels. When they leave the nest hole, they will also wipe the entrance with fur or vegetation, presumably to make it difficult for predators to smell their presence.
During the winter, white-breasted nuthatches travel with mixed flocks of other birds such as chickadees, titmice, red-breasted nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers. Scientists believe that chickadee calls carry information about predators, offering protection and a means to find food easier.
If we are to go looking for a white-breasted nuthatch, they are most commonly found in mature, deciduous forests, while the relative red-breasted nuthatch prefers the coniferous forest more. Explore and enjoy the wonder of this nature in your own back yard.
For over 42 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and exhibit, On Lake Owen: The Art of Walter Bohl, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs.