White breasted nuthatch. [Sarah Armstrong]

Bounty of nuthatches

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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Red-breasted nuthatches are commonly sighted across Prince Edward Island. They boldly frequent bird feeders, looking for protein and fat. If you build it, they will come—sunflower seeds, peanut butter, and suet all bring them in for a meal. Along with the calls of black-capped chickadees, the nasal “Ed, Ed, Ed” call of a red-breasted nuthatch can often be heard anywhere there are trees.

These birds are smaller than chickadees, and seem to be even quicker. Chickadees always appear round and soft, whereas a nuthatch is sleek and sharp. As its name implies, it has a rusty-red breast to go along with a slate-grey back and a white belly. It has a very distinct black stripe running through its eyes. The short, square tail is unlike the tails of woodpeckers and brown creepers. Nuthatches don’t use their tails to aid them in climbing. Instead, they rely on very strong feet to grip trees. They also climb up and down trees looking for food, while woodpeckers and creepers mostly walk down the stem of a tree, pressing their stiff tails against the trunk.

If you make any sort of squeaky call or “spishing” noises while walking in the woods, these birds will be among the first to come out and see who’s in their territory. Not bashful or afraid, but always curious.

These birds are regularly seen during woodland outings throughout the year. Another species of nuthatch, while still rare, is becoming more common throughout the province. The white-breasted nuthatch is a larger version of its red-breasted cousin. It has a white breast and large white patches on the sides of its head. When I first started birding in the province they were rarely, if ever, seen. Today, they occasionally turn up at feeders and woodlands.

The call of a white-breasted nuthatch is more aggressive than that of the red-breasted nuthatch. If you hear something that sounds like “Ed, Ed, Ed” but louder and with something not quite right, you’ve probably stumbled onto this uncommon species.

Both species nest in cavities in trees, and not very high off the ground.  Dead or dying trees (also known as snags, or wildlife trees) are so important in our forests, providing ideal nesting habitat for over 20 species of birds within the province. Nuthatches tend to make precise, almost chiseled entrances to their nests, unlike the rougher nest holes carved out by chickadees. They also use sap to coat the entranceway. It is thought to discourage predators, but in any case it is unusual behaviour.

When away from feeders, these birds will glean insects on and under bark, eat conifer seeds, and hack away at nuts they have stored. The name “nuthatch” is said to come from the tendency of these birds to take nuts and seeds and force them under bark or in a crevice, and then “hack” (or “hatch”) away them.

During winter, you’ll often find nuthatches—especially the red-breasted ones—in mixed flocks with black-capped chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets. Other guests will sometimes join these groups, including dark-eyed juncos, boreal chickadees, purple finches, and American goldfinches.

Red-breasted nuthatches are living proof that birds don’t have to be rare to be appreciated. It is always fun to come across these curious and seemingly joyful little birds, no matter how many you come across. That being said, it is still quite a treat to come across a bossy-sounding white breasted nuthatch. When birding, variety can truly be the spice of life.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.