Red-breasted nuthatches prefer peanuts

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By Sylvia Brockner

A few warm days this week have finally made it seem a bit like spring. There is a good bit of clear ground showing; only the deep drifts remain — a welcome change from all white. Although we are being promised more snow in a day or two, we at least know there is hope.

I have a bouquet of daffodils on the living room table, from the supermarket gardens, but nevertheless they are bright sunshine yellow and sweet smelling. They give me hope that the daffodils in my yard will bloom someday soon.

Bluebirds have returned in fair numbers, with reports from Squaw Pass Road to Bailey. A pair of mountain bluebirds were seen inspecting a bluebird house in Alderfer/Three Sisters Park on Sunday, March 9. Hopefully, this means that more bluebirds will be arriving soon and I will actually see one in my yard.

Chickadees and red-breasted, white-breasted and pygmy nuthatches have all been feasting at our peanut feeder. It has always interested me that peanuts are such a favorite food of the nuthatches. How did they learn to eat peanuts, which grow underground? Certainly they could not have been an important part of their natural diet, even in the southeastern states where peanuts grow. Yet the red-breasted nuthatch is attracted to them above all the other food at our feeders.

Their first stop is early in the morning, and their last stop is late in the afternoon. The first stop is for quick energy to fuel their bodies after a long night without food. If they have had a successful day of foraging, they do not return in the late afternoon to stoke their furnaces for the night. If they have not had successful foraging, they may return off and on during the day. This seems like a fine arrangement to me, for I provide the necessary superfood they need to see them through the night and to get going again in the morning. In return, they spend most of the day gleaning insects, eggs and larvae from the nearby trees. A fair exchange.

For as long as we have lived here, 43 years, there has been a single pair of red-breasted nuthatches living in the ravine behind our house. No, they are not the same pair of birds, for they do not live that long. In that length of time there have probably been several deaths, and whichever gender was left has been able to secure a new mate. This has been accomplished a day or two each spring when we have a sudden influx of red-breasted nuthatches. We may have three to six at the feeder for a couple of days. They are permanent residents and do not migrate as such, but apparently all the eligible, single, young birds move about in spring, thus providing a choice of mates for our survivor. The local pair chase them out of their territory, or if they are loners, they choose a new mate. Once the pair bond is made, they resume their dominance of the ravine, and the others drift on, looking for a mate and a new home.

While the valley is mostly open ponderosa pine and aspen forest, the ravine is on a north-facing slope. Cool and shady, it supplies the dark, thick spruce and Douglas fir forest that the red-breasted nuthatches prefer. It also provides a large dead stub of a pine in which they have nested every year. It is old and well rotted but still stands. Riddled with nesting cavities made over the years, it looks like an old apartment house from which the tenants have been evicted, with the exception of one stubborn tenant who refuses to leave. One of these days it will topple in a storm or be torn apart by a bear looking for ants. When this happens, the red-breasted nuthatches will have to find a new home, and the old stub will return to the soil from which it grew. Until then, we enjoy having red-breasted nuthatches in residence. They are good neighbors.