Nothing like a nutty nuthatch

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By Sylvia Brockner

The warm, spring-like weather of last week melted enough ice along the road that I finally ventured out for a walk. Even though it is now winter again, it was delightful to have a “spring break” and the reassurance that spring really will be here soon.

One of the earliest signs of spring is the nuthatch activity. The white-breasted nuthatches are permanent residents, coming to our feeders all year, but along in February they seem to renew their pair bond and start coming to the feeder as a pair. The males become very attentive and carry on much more vocalization. By late February, they often start working sporadically on a nest site.

For many years their chosen sight was in a nest box only a few feet from my little greenhouse. On any warm February day, I was likely to hear them tap, tap, tapping inside the box as I worked in the greenhouse. However, it was only a halfhearted effort, seemingly more to impress his lady than to actually accomplish anything. By March, the tapping would become a bit more serious, but it was not until April that the chips began to fly. There was no speed to enlarge the cavity — the box was plenty big and empty — but the act of making a cavity is apparently necessary as part of the pair bond/nesting activity. By late April nest building began, and by May eggs were laid and young hatched.

My walk took me only a short way to where I could see an old ponderosa pine that has welcomed several pairs of pygmy nuthatches every year. On the upper part of the trunk, branch stubs have provided nesting sites for several pairs of pygmy nuthatches, often 40 or 50 feet above the ground. They nest in the cracks and crevices in the old tree limbs, as well as actually excavating their own nesting cavities in the old trunk. Their sturdy beaks have no trouble chiseling out a cavity because after all these years the old pine is becoming fairly well softened by decay.

The pygmy nuthatch is a favorite of many people. They are so little that they are frequently described as “cute” and “darling.” They are more like a swarm of bees crawling over the suet feeder than birds. They also have the least fear of humans of any bird I know. Many times they have crawled over my hands while I was filling the suet feeder, too eager to feast on suet to be bothered by the presence of my fingers or me.

They travel in flocks most of the year and pair off only for a few weeks during the spring breeding season. Family flocks join other families, and soon flocks of 25 to 50 appear in autumn. We used to have 24 or 25 coming to our feeders all winter long, but they suffered several losses when the local forests were sprayed to control the Rocky Mountain pine beetle and the spruce budworm and have never regained their former abundance. This was not due to the insecticide killing the nuthatches but rather was caused by the lack of food to feed the young.

Some time ago I read about a scientific study where the distance they flew to gather insects and the number of trips made per hour were extrapolated to find they flew an estimated 30 miles a day to feed their young. If, instead of flying only a few yards to find enough insects, they had to travel several miles after all the local insects were killed by spray, it would be impossible for them to gather enough food to feed their large brood of six to eight young. They declined in great numbers during the late ‘70s and ‘80s and have never regained their former abundance.

Pygmy nuthatches eat a wide variety of insects, including wasps, ants, spittle bugs, beetles, grasshoppers, spiders and the larva of spruce budworms, pine moths and other insects for which people were spraying. Spraying is done differently today, and if only the trunks are sprayed to try to control the pine beetle, it should not do the damage that aerial spraying did in the past, for pygmy nuthatches usually feed well out in the crown of the tree.

The small amount of vegetable matter they eat consists mostly of pine seeds. They do most of their feeding in the upper branches of the pines and can often be seen flying out like a flycatcher to take some flying insect from the air.

Another habit that endears pygmy nuthatches to people is their lively chatter. Even on a cold winter morning, they call back and forth while feeding to keep the flock together. In spring it becomes more persistent and becomes the main chatter at your feeders.

In winter they may drop down to somewhat lower elevations but usually stay in the ponderosa or pinyon pine forests. On rare occasions they wander out onto the plains, where they look for evergreen windbreaks around farmyards. However, they return to their beloved ponderosa pines to nest, and by May their apartment-house dead ponderosa pine will be crawling with happy, twittering pygmy nuthatches.