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nuthatchExcerpted from a recent article by our favorite WNC naturalist and columnist for the Asheville Citizen-Times, George Ellison.

“…Throughout the year, along with wrens and kinglets and chickadees, nuthatches are among the energetic sprites of the bird world. Their constant wind-up-toy movements and curious examination of everything they encounter, including people, makes them entertaining to watch, as they always seem to be going the wrong way.  Just watching one go about his business can life your spirits on a gloomy day.

In Western North Carolina there are three nuthatch species.  The brown-headed is infrequent here, but common farther south in the open pinelands of the piedmont and coastal plain…As the common name implies the bird does have a brown head, herky-jerky movements and a distinctive “kit-kit-kit” vocalization…

The red-breasted nuthatch has a broad black line through its eye with a white line just above.  The bird’s undersides are rusty reddish in color.  Its delightful “ank-ank-ank” call is quite nasal, having been described as sounding like a tiny tin horn.  You can hear them approaching from a considerable distance.  They next in the northern hardwood and spruce-fir forests above 3,000 feet.  In winter, they can be found at all elevations.

The white-breasted nuthatch doesn’t really have a song that amounts to anything.  He announces his presence with nasal “yank-yank” calls.  It’s such a dapper bird, all decked out in becoming blacks, blue-grays and white that resemble a formal suit of clothes, as if dressed up for an occasion.  (We think he looks like a West Point Cadet!)

They display a black cap and beady black eyes in a white face.  Common throughout WNC year-round, they frequent stands of deciduous hardwood but will occur in conifers on occasion.  More than any other nuthatch they frequent backyard feeders, especially in winter when suet has been provided.

The designation “nuthatch” is a corruption of “nut-hack”, which referred to their habit of hacking away with their bills at seeds wedged into crevices.  Like squirrels, they also maintain caches of food in tree cavities and other hideaways.  Nuthatches almost always feed in a headfirst spiral down a tree trunk to nearly ground level before flying back up into the top of a nearby tree, the procedure repeated ad infinitum .  This acrobatic approach is profitable because brown creepers, woodpeckers and other bark-feeding birds almost always move upward as they forage for insects.  Allowing nuthatches to probe previously overlooked nooks and crannies.

Woodpeckers have longish stiff tails they use to climb upward.  Not requiring that sort of support when descending, the nuthatch’s tail is short and rounded.  To keep themselves from tumbling to the ground as they wind downward, they utilize a long claw-like hind toe called a “halluxon” on each foot that anchors them to the tree.

Although I have never seen them doing so, there are numerous reports of a practice called “bill sweeping”, whereby white-breasted nuthatches “sweep” the bark around their nest holes with fluids from crushed insects to ward off predators.  Blister beetles, which release an odorous corrosive fluid when disturbed, are just one of the insects white-breasted nuthatches employ in this manner.”

SOURCE:  George Ellison, Columnist for The Asheville Citizen-Times


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