By John Thaxton
During a field trip to Bloomingdale Bog that my wife and I led for Northern New York Audubon, a woman who hadn’t said a thing for an hour and a half, nor smiled, turned to me with a merciless look and demanded: “I wanna see a white-breasted nuthatch!”
Soon as she spoke, I heard one, close by, holding forth for all it was worth.
“Do you hear this, I said, pointing in the direction of the song?”
“Yes,” she said, “what is it?”
“A white-breasted nuthatch,” I explained. At the same moment I sighted the bird, 15 feet away, at eye level. The woman frowned and looked at me suspiciously, then took an unusually long time to look in the direction I indicated.
I directed my laser pointer at the nuthatch and strode closer to the woman because I feared she might faint—she gasped as though in horror, and I thought her eyebrows were about to somersault over her forehead. Then she smiled and nodded her head a few times in what struck me as a profound gesture of thanks.
Hearty birds that spend the winter in the Adirondacks, white-breasted nuthatches forage by walking up and down trees and probing underneath the bark in search of insects, which they find in abundance. They tend to do most of their feeding while walking down the tree trunk, and they frequently raise their heads for a look around.
The female usually initiates copulation by squatting very low on a fairly horizontal perch, raising her tail and head upward and making a phee-oo sound. The male responds by cocking his tail and head upward and twisting his neck at an angle of 45 degrees. He then moves to the right side of the female, passes under her beak and hops onto her back. The female continues to make her call after the male completes copulating.
White-breasted nuthatches have 13 calls, and they live in the same territory year-round, nesting in natural cavities or old woodpecker holes. Only the female broods, and the young leave the nest after 26 days.
The birds prefer to nest at the edge of a woodland adjacent to an open area, such as a lake or a road or a field, and they frequently reuse the nest the following year. You’ll usually hear them before you see them. Listen for a regular series of six to eight quiet notes that sound something like yank-yank-yank-yank. The call has a decidedly nasal quality.
Red-breasted nuthatches, a smaller species that uses the same feeding strategy, emit a different call, a monotonous series of quiet neah-neah-neaah, also with a very nasal quality.
If you want to see either of the nuthatches, search for them at the edge of a woodlot. While walking up my driveway, I sometimes spot them feeding in trees on the edge of the woods. I also see them just about every time I go to the Bloomingdale Bog. Its trail passes through prime nuthatch habitat.
For reasons I have never understood, the call of nuthatches always makes me smile.
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Birdwatch is a regular column in Adirondack Explorer’s bimonthly magazine.
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