Be Your Own Birder

Bird of the Week: White-Breasted Nuthatch

This last week before Christmas is always nutty, and extra reserves of energy are essential to successfully perform all the planning and preparation acrobatics necessary, from last-minute shopping, desperate trips to the post office and too many batches of cookies with too few ovens to missing decorations, mountains of gifts to wrap, secrets to hide for just a few more days and other holiday hecticness. This week’s featured bird can be your inspiration to manage it all, as this bird is named for nuttiness, is a bundle of energy and performs as an amazing acrobat. Meet the white-breasted nuthatch!

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch – Photo by Bill Thompson/USFWS

Name: White-Breasted Nuthatch
Scientific Name: Sitta carolinensis
Scientific Family: Sittidae (Nuthatches and Wallcreeper)

Habitat: These birds prefer mature forests and woodlands with principally deciduous trees including hickory, oak and maple. Woodland edges are also popular nuthatch habitats, as well as similar habitats in suburban areas, such as cemeteries, orchards, parks and yards with suitable trees. Decaying trees are especially attractive to these birds for both food and nesting cavities, and they generally stay at lower elevations within their preferred habitats.

Range: White-breasted nuthatches are found throughout central Canada, the continental United States and into western Mexico. They are less common in the central plains, and are largely absent from the most humid, tropical areas stretching from southern Texas to Florida. They are also absent from the driest, most barren areas of the southwest.

White-breasted nuthatches have much more than just a white breast – the entire underparts, throat and face are white, and the dark eyes stand out in the face. The undertail coverts show a rusty wash. A thick black stripe (more gray-black on females) stretches from the forehead, across the crown and nape to connect to the slate blue-gray back, and the wings are gray-black with white edging. The short tail is black with white patches on the outer feathers. The bill is straight and stout, showing a very slight turn upward that can be difficult to see except from certain angles.

These birds are always a treat to watch as they work their way up, down and around tree trunks and branches, most often upside down or twisting around in a feathered version of advanced yoga. They search for insects in bark crevices or under leaves, and wedge nuts and seeds into the bark of trees so they can more easily “hatch” the shells by whacking on them. They are active and energetic, a study in perpetual motion. As a year-round species in their range, they can be fun to observe in different seasons and a joy when they visit winter feeders for seeds, nuts and suet.

I’ve seen these birds a few times, though never as often as I’d like. My lifer white-breasted nuthatch was in an open stand of woods in a mixed flock with black-capped chickadees and the occasional ruby-crowned kinglet – other birds that forage on branches and trunks that often gather with nuthatches in the fall and winter. I’ve seen them flitting about parks, foraging through a cemetery and in similar areas. They’re always a surprise and a delight, and one I hope you’re able to see and enjoy as well!

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