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North Words: Nuthatches are very interesting birds to watch

During our latest snow event, I noticed that the wild birds at my feeders were especially active. Blue jays, pine grosbeaks, common red polls, chickadees, and nuthatches were busily feeding and caching seeds. They were all foraging in a frenzy it seemed.

One bird that I noticed was a red-breasted nuthatch. A little smaller than their white-breasted cousins, I don't often see the red-breasted varieties in my mostly hardwoods backyard. Indeed, red-breasted nuthatches are more comfortable in coniferous and mixed deciduous-coniferous forests.

But what interesting birds nuthatches are. Here in our region we have just two species, the white-breasted and the red-breasted nuthatch (although the brown creeper, which we also have, is closely related). And though similar to woodpeckers in both behavior and appearance, nuthatches belong to an entirely different family: Sittidae.

Woodpeckers, on the other hand, are members of the family Picidae. Two other species of nuthatches inhabit other regions of the United States. The brown-headed nuthatch makes its home in the pines of the Deep South, Florida, and parts of the East Coast, while the pygmy nuthatch inhabits the west, throughout the Rockies and into Mexico.

Of the four North American species of nuthatches, the white-breasted is the most widespread of all. They range extensively across most of the United States as well as much of southern Canada and parts of Mexico. Both species that reside here in Minnesota are year-round residents, which, in my book, make these birds even more appealing.

One of the many interesting behaviors typical of nuthatches is their habit of clinging upside down on tree trunks and limbs. Though other birds are nearly as acrobatic, like chickadees, woodpeckers, and brown creepers for example, only nuthatches inch their way down a tree headfirst in their search for food, whereas woodpeckers and brown creepers -- usually -- climb trees by working their way upward, headfirst.

And there's more. Nuthatches have exceptional spatial memories. In other words, these little birds are experts in remembering where they cache, or hide, their seeds and foodstuffs. Next time you watch your birdfeeder, take note what happens when a nuthatch arrives.

Like chickadees, they don't stay long for you to observe them. In the case of sunflower seeds, a white-breasted nuthatch will extract several sunflower seeds from the feeder before making off with one. What these birds are doing is literally weighing the seeds (other birds do this too).

Much like we mentally test the weight of a fruit or vegetable at the supermarket by hefting it in our hand before deciding on buying it, nuthatches are testing the weight of individual seeds to find out if what's inside is worth their time and energy. They do this quickly of course, rejecting seeds and dropping them to the ground below. Then, finding a suitable seed, they fly away with it.

What the birds do next with the seed depends on its hunger. If its mission is to save it for later consumption, the nuthatch will stuff the seeds into the crevices of trees, under bits of bark, etc., and will then return to the birdfeeder to do the same thing again and again.

If they are hungry you will discover how the nuthatch got its namesake. When a nuthatch wants to break open a seed's shell, it will secure the seed into the bark or crevice of a limb or tree trunk and repeatedly "hack" away at the seed's shell with its bill until it can extract the prize "seed meat" inside the shell. Perhaps "nuthack" would be a more appropriate and understandable name. And regarding the birds' memory that I mentioned earlier, nuthatches have the extraordinary ability to recall its hiding places and, thus, its food.

During severe winter weather it is important for animals like nuthatches, gray jays, Clark's nutcrackers, chickadees, squirrels, weasels, foxes, and others, to be able to cache foods to eat and readily locate when environmental conditions become severe and when food becomes scarce. Nuthatches hide seeds all day long and are able to locate a vast majority of their hidden morsels when necessary.

So designed are nuthatches bodies for an upside down lifestyle, that the birds appear ill-equipped for upright mobility. Indeed, seeing an upright perching nuthatch is rare, almost unusual looking, as they seem much more comfortable clinging upside down underneath a limb or suet feeder than they are in almost any other position.

Worldwide, there are 25 species of nuthatches and wallcreepers. To be able to look outside and observe two species (three if you count the brown creeper!) of these specialized little birds inching their way up or down and sometimes vocalizing their "yank, yank, yank" nasal-sounding call, is a gratifying experience. And what's more, we can do this throughout the year as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.