Nuthatches can turn their world upside-down

Living in Balance
By Jenipher Appleton

Imagine having the ability to maneuver head-first down the trunk of a tree; or better yet, to walk ably on the underside of a limb like a housefly on the ceiling. Such is the talent of the nuthatch. Upon close inspection of these little birds – they are relatively tame – their toes are quite elongated and sharp. This feature likely contributes to the skill of self-inversion; and like a good gymnast, they seem to have total control of their bodies while upside down.
Two species, the red- and white-breasted nuthatches, are common in our area. The red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is about 11 cm long and weighs in around 11 g. The back is blue-gray, the under parts rusty, and both male and female sport a black streak from the beak, through the eye to the back of the head. This little fellow is known to eat from human hands, much like the chickadee or gray jay, and its song is reminiscent of a tin horn with its short “ank, ank” sound. Their preferred foods include conifer seeds, sunflowers seeds, and suet. Nuthatches usually nest in a coniferous tree. The male and female smear pine pitch around the nest entrance to ward off predators – a very sticky yet effective process. From this nest only one brood of eggs is hatched per year.
The white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is 13-15 cm and weighs 20 g. According to Fred J. Alsop III’s “Birds of Canada,” this species can catch a falling nut in midair. This is executed with considerably more expertise than some people (usually men), who strangely toss peanuts into the air and retrieve them on descent with their mouths (no names mentioned). The white-breasted nuthatch’s song is a sweet sounding “wee-wee,” and its favourite foods are nuts, seeds, spiders and insects. Unlike the red-breasted, the white-breasted nuthatch is non-migratory.
We have a great tube-style feeder called the “squirrel buster.” It is carefully engineered so the weight of the squirrel causes the barrel of the feeder to descend and close off the openings in the tube. Most birds are too light to cause this reaction. Recently inspired by the presence of an inverted nuthatch on the squirrel buster feeder, I sat down to outline this article. I glanced up and noted the presence of a Cooper’s Hawk perched on a large spruce limb. This accipiter (or bird hawk) pays frequent visits to back yard feeders for a quick lunch. Down and feathers were flying as he furiously attacked the prey in his talons (likely a finch or sparrow). At the same moment, the red-breasted nuthatch had settled itself on the suet feeder, oblivious to the presence of the formidable predator barely twenty feet away. Fortunately for the nuthatch, the hawk was consumed with devouring his own repast. Meanwhile, inside the house, I was thoroughly entertained by the balance of nature at work in my own back yard. Both nuthatch species are frequent visitors at our home near Ailsa Craig. Keep those feeders full of sunflower seeds and suet and you can be sure to attract them to your yard.