Nuthatches: The Big to the Little

By Dave Hanks

It is odd to see a bird traveling down a branch or tree trunk upside down. Well, that is a noticeable characteristic of nuthatches. America has four species of these UPSIDE DOWN BIRDS: White-Breasted, Red-Breasted, Brown-Headed, and Pygmy. Nuthatches are stub-tailed, nervous little birds. They hold on to the tree with their claws – stretching one foot forward under their chest while leaving one back by their tail. A thin, sharp beak allows them to pick insects out of tree bark.

The RED-BREASTED is our nuthatch here in Cassia County. I have previously mentioned this 4 ½ inch species of our forests, and its “yank – yank” call. Another (smaller sized) nuthatch is the BROWN-HEADED that is found in the southeastern states. The Brown-Headed call sounds like the squeak of a rubber duck. We have experienced this bird in Pettit-Jean Park, Arkansas in November.

The little PYGMY has a shrill call, and is only found here in our western mountains. It has a gray-brown crown, gray back, and a buff white belly. We have experienced this species in Oregon’s Ponderosa Pine forests and also in the trees by Jacob’s Lake, Arizona.

The WHITE-BREASTED (5 ¾ inches) is the largest and most wide spread. These birds have white bellies and heads, and rusty colored butts. There is a black stripe on their crowns. They are easily observed because they will readily come to bird feeders. This species voice is loud and its insistent yammering will lead you to it.

Nuthatches get their name from their habit of jamming nuts into crevices in tree bark. Then the birds will whack the nuts with their sharp bills to hatch the seeds out of their shells. Although in the family Sittidae, you could almost picture these birds as small woodpeckers. In winter, nuthatches flock with chickadees and kinglets.

(The big and the little: White-Breasted to Pygmy)