Boisterous pygmy nuthatches visiting feeders

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Our Evergreen World

By Sylvia Brockner

November arrived with a few nice days, but it is definitely autumn with a real chill in the air. We have had so many nice autumns in recent years that I have become spoiled. I don’t like to see the cold weather come so early.
There were a few warblers drifting through in October, but things have dwindled down now to little more than the local resident birds coming to the feeders.

Of the winter resident birds that are at the feeders now, I think I most appreciate the pygmy nuthatches, not because they are the most colorful, but because they are so joyful.
They arrive in a sociable, chattering flock of 10 or so birds, enthusiastic about coming to dine, twittering, calling to each other, sharing food and carrying on an excited conversation.
Then one of them gets a mouthful of suet, and you can almost hear him shout, “Hey, this is the best stuff I’ve ever had. Everybody, come try some.” His chatter rises a few decibels, and all the pygmy nuthatches within hearing descend upon the feeder with happy chirps of joy.
They soon have made enough noise that all their cousins in the neighborhood have relayed the message, and all of the pygmy nuthatches in the area have come chattering in to try the suet. What greedy little things they are.
They are like a group of cheerful, boisterous, noisy children, but they are quite willing to share, and everybody gets in on the feast. It is hard not to like these little imps. They chatter so incessantly as they crawl over the suet that they remind me of a swarm of bees.
They declined in numbers rather drastically during the late ’70s when the pine beetles reached epidemic numbers, and everyone was spraying. I doubt that it was a direct result of the spray but a secondary result of there not being enough insects left in the area for them to feed their young. We had a flock of about 25 that came daily to our feeders; they have dwindled to one or two. However, they slowly have increased again, although not yet back to what they had been. We have eight to 10 daily at this time, but at least the numbers are going up.
The pygmy nuthatch is the smallest of the nuthatches that you may see at your feeders. The red-breasted nuthatch is just a bit larger and the white-breasted is the largest, being a tad larger than a chickadee due to its short tail.
There are two subspecies of pygmies in the United States. The type specimen was found in the coastal mountains of central California, and the one we have here is scattered throughout the western mountains. They are relatively common here but are found wherever the ponderosa pines grow. In fact, the range maps of the ponderosa pine and the pygmy nuthatch are almost identical.
There is also a very similar species in the southeastern states known as the brown-headed nuthatch. They are considered a distinct species since there is so much distance between them and the western birds that they have never overlapped territory, and therefore, there is no evidence of interbreeding even though the two species are very much alike.
Our little pygmy nuthatch is known to gather in large flocks to spend the night together in some old pine stub. Presumably this helps keep them warm by sharing each other’s body heat on our cold mountain nights. Several observers have written of seeing 100 to 200 of them entering a stub just before dark. Then as usual, they talk or chatter until they finally all get comfortable and settle down to sleep.
I have never seen one of these big gatherings, but I have found a few nests. They nest in dead pine stubs anywhere from four to five feet from the ground up to 50 feet or more in a dead tree. I have found several nests over the years, but only once has one nested in one of my bird boxes.
They do not necessarily stay here all winter. They do not migrate in the usual sense, but if food becomes scarce, they may drop down to lower elevations or even out onto the prairies. They sometimes wander as far as southeastern Colorado. However, they return early for they are early nesters, usually having young by late May.