White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)
By Joni James

One of the common birds I am especially fond of is the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). During winter I see them more closely as they fly to my deck railing outside the window where I sit at my journaling table. They are within 3-4 feet and I marvel at their shape, adaptations, and spunkiness.

White-breasted Nuthatches are fairly common birds to our feeders as they enjoy sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet. Their main diet consists of insects of many types as well as seeds and nuts.

They love to forage up and down as well as sideways on the trunks and branches. Nuthatches are often seen traveling down – head first on a tree. They will often start higher on a trunk and work their way down proceeding head first. They will probe the bark searching for food in the crevices. They take the larger seeds and nuts they find (including the sunflower seeds from feeders), and cram them into bark and hammer the shells open with their bill which is adapted for probing and pounding. White-breasted Nuthatches also cache/store food under loose bark and in crevices. They will often cover it with moss or lichens.

These birds live in pairs throughout the year. The crown in the male is black and the female’s crown is grayish and she is duller and grayish overall. In winter they are often seen together with chickadees and titmice.

I especially enjoy watching the behaviors of birds and learning of the details in their behaviors from research. A few interesting tidbits of research info include—

  • Nuthatches prefer trees with stronger furrowed bark for caching.
  • Trunks were used by males for caching food and females used a variety of locations
  • On average 13.5 meters was the distance males would store food from a feeder and an average height of 5.8 meters from the ground. Females were similar

Nuthatches have various threat and distraction displays. I always enjoy seeing them use these behaviors in which they spread their tail feathers and wings and sway back and forth. I’ve seen this display during interactions with other birds (often larger than the nuthatch) and chipmunks at the feeder. Here is a brief video showing a display by the Nuthatch.

Nesting is in natural cavities or old woodpecker holes in trees by the female who adds material. They do not excavate them but may enlarge an existing cavity. The average clutch is 6 eggs and incubation time is 12-14 days. The female only incubates but the male will feed her. Once the eggs hatch, both parents feed the nestlings.

Spend time observing the White-breasted Nuthatches around your home and on field trips. There is much to learn from them as they interact with intra and inter bird species and mammals. Pay attention to their various songs/calls, when they are used and follow them to their cache sites. Get personal with the Nuthatch.


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