This morning I watched a white-breasted nuthatch creeping headfirst down the trunk of an oak tree. These are remarkably people-tolerant birds, and even though I stood only about fifteen feet away, he remained intent on foraging, issuing a repeated loud, nasal “yank” as he hitched his way around the trunk. As I edged closer, he paused momentarily. With his long, curved claws tightly clamped onto the bark, he twisted his head at a 90-degree angle to get a better look at me. This engaging “pose” is the one most often captured by photographers.
By scaling down the tree headfirst in its search for food, more like a squirrel than a bird, the nuthatch has a unique perspective on the world. This topsy-turvy foraging style enables them to find insects that other birds like the brown creeper and downy woodpecker that search the same trees “right side up” might miss.
This time of year, nuthatches join mixed species foraging flocks led by black-capped chickadees or tufted titmice. These species are excellent food-finders so it makes food easier to find for the nuthatches, and foraging in flocks allows more birds to watch for predators.
In Virginia, the white-breasted nuthatch is a year-round resident and mated pairs stay together throughout the non-breeding season, often foraging for food together. The male shows dominance over the female at the feeders, but will pass seeds to her to cache. The two are quite industrious, returning over and over and dashing off in different directions to stash the seeds in bark crevices for future use.
Nuthatches are endearing to watch as they meticulously scale the trees in their search for food. Watching them, I am reminded of a poem by author/poet Maurice Thompson:
The busy nuthatch climbs his tree
Around the great bole spirally,
Peeping into wrinkles gray,
Under ruffled lichens gay,
Lazily piping one sharp note
From his silver mailed throat.