When I first started watching birds in my own backyard, the White-Breasted Nuthatch was one of the first “exotic” species I encountered. Basically, what I mean by that is the Nuthatch was the first bird I wasn’t able to name without the assistance of a field guide.
Since that initial sighting, I have become familiar with the comings and goings of these little guys. They are fairly small in stature, being about 5 or 6 inches, which puts them between the size of a Chickadee and a House Sparrow. Their coloring is not particularly memorable. The have slate gray wings, backs, necks and head caps and a white belly, throat and bottom. You can also look for a little bit of chestnut by the back of their legs and butt but it will probably be a flash sighting as these little guys move rather rapidly. Males and females look similar, but the females are a dark gray where the male is black. Their bodies are almost streamline, with their tail and their very long, thin beak almost lining up when the White-Breasted Nuthatch is looking straight ahead.
However plain is its appearance, the Nuthatch is distinct in its behavior. The Nuthatch hops head first down feeders and trees. From this upside-down posture, they often arch their necks to see forward, causing them to resemble a marble dolphin in a fountain. It is this behavior that has caused the White-Breasted Nuthatch to be nicknamed the “upside-down bird” by several members of my family.
The Nuthatch resemble Woodpeckers in their eating habits. They like to hunt and eat insects directly from trees. Their long toes and toenails, along with their long, thin beaks, are great tools for the job. They scrabble along tree bark, hunting for their dinner. However, this is where the Nuthatch is different. While a Woodpecker will land on a tree and hunt its way up to the top, the Nuthatch starts at the top and works down. This strategy allows them to see insects and insect eggs that are not visible from the bottom to top approach.
The Nuthatch will come to suet and seed feeders, but suet seems to be their preference. They also eat nuts and acorns, particularly in the autumn and winter, for they are non-migratory. Due to their Woodpecker-like behaviors, it won’t surprise you to learn that White-Breasted Nuthatches like to nest in cavities and often take over holes that have been deserted by woodpeckers. They have only one brood a year, and both parents concentrate their efforts on feeding the nestlings. Despite their smaller stature, the Nuthatch is generally not shy of other birds. They fly in mixed flocks outside of the breeding season and are not usually startled by companions at the feeder.
The White-Breasted Nuthatch has several relations that look similar to him. He resembles the Red-Breasted Nuthatch, which is also common to New Jersey, but is slightly smaller and has rusty red belly. The stripe over its eyes is the first noticeably difference for observers. The Brown-Headed Nuthatch, which only resembles the White-Breasted in shape and behavior, is more commonly found below the Mason-Dixon line, which includes the Southern tip of New Jersey.