Hardy species hang around mountain area in winter

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our Evergreen World

By Sylvia Brockner

Snowy February has fairly well lived up to its name. We have not had deep snow here, but frequent light snow and cold weather have kept the ground carpeted in white. Of course, more lies ahead for us for spring snows are usually deeper although less frequent.


March snows are usually deep, wet and heavy. Even April, our second snowiest month, brings this same kind of snow with nice spring days in between. Spring can’t come too soon for me for I have cabin fever and just can’t wait to get outside.

The A-frame on our house receives the early-afternoon sun full force and whatever small accumulation of snow is on it melts with drops running down the shingles. The chickadees, quick to note any running water, are coming now to drink this spring tonic. They also drink from the gutter pipe on the south side of the house, but today, it is too cold, and it hasn’t melted yet.

Two species of chickadees, three species of nuthatches, woodpeckers and juncos are the hardy resident birds that stay with us all year. Because they are here and our winter is long, they often begin their spring courtships earlier than the migrant birds do.

I often hear the white-breasted nuthatch tapping away inside one of the bird nest boxes I have on a ponderosa pine just outside my garden room as early as February when I am inside planting seeds. This attempt at enlarging the nesting cavity is not necessary for the box is plenty large enough, but it must be one of the many steps in courtship that is necessary for them to do because each step is triggered by the completion of the previous step.

Two or three pairs of white-breasted nuthatches and several pygmy nuthatches nest in the nearby area each year. However, as far as I can determine, only one pair of red-breasted nuthatches nest in this area. These handsome little birds are apparently less easily domesticated than the other two species.

I have never had them nest in a manmade bird box, but one pair has nested for years in an old ponderosa pine stump in a north-facing ravine behind our house. This stump is about seven feet high and was left standing when a ponderosa pine was snapped off in a windstorm probably 50 years ago.

The wood is well rotted and soft, so it is easily dug into. The tree itself must have been cut up for firewood shortly after it fell for there is no sign of it today. The stump, however, has provided a yearly nesting site for a pair of red-breasted nuthatches for at least 30 years and is riddled with nesting cavities. The old soft wood makes excavation easy and when I could hike back there, I found their new nest every year.

There has only been one pair nesting and coming to the feeders every year. The pair seems to be the same two birds for about three years. Then something happens to one of them, and the remaining bird comes alone to the feeders. Then after the early spring “nuthatch day” when we seem to have a number of nuthatches moving through, the remaining bird apparently convinces one of them to stay, and it appears at the feeder with its new mate.

Most other birds seem to come to the feeders off and on all day, but the red-breasted nuthatches only come twice a day: first thing in the morning they come to replenish their energy after a long night and late afternoon or evening to stoke up for the night. Otherwise, I see them feeding in the valley and on the trees where they find the seeds and insects that they apparently prefer.

The red-breasted nuthatch is a handsome bird. They do not have a red breast, but the male in good plumage has a salmon-colored breast. The female has a much paler breast, which varies from cream to pale pink. Usually there is enough difference in color so you can tell the male and female apart. They both have a prominent white line above the eye. Their voice is similar but higher pitched than the white-breasted nuthatch.

Instead of “yank, yank, yank,” the red-breasted nuthatch sounds like a child playing a little tinhorn. They usually are found where there are aspen mixed into the evergreen forest.