Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Common Feeder Birds: White-breasted Nuthatch

Late fall and winter is a great time to watch birds at your feeder or, if you don't have a feeder, visit a park that has feeders. A great citizen science project is Project Feeder Watch from Cornell. Indiana Audubon also features a Winter Feeder Count and forms can be found on their website.


The information that is gathered by people just like you helps scientists discover trends in bird populations and provides valuable data.

The next series of posts will feature common birds one can expect to find at their feeders in Indianapolis. The first bird I have chosen is one of my favorites, the White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis. This little bird is full of personality and has some interesting quirks about it. They are absolutely fascinating to watch. Their name comes from their unique habit of placing large seeds and nuts in crevices of trees, then "hacking" or "hatching" them open with their long, slightly upturned bill. They cache or store seeds under loose bark or in crevices of trees and will place only one item at each site in an area as large as 45 acres! Remarkably, they can remember where they placed them, unlike me who cannot find my car keys half of the time!

These birds have beautiful markings. They have a dark crown with white cheeks and a white breast. Their back is a bluish-gray. They have a short tail with white corners that are visible in flight.They are approximately 5-6 inches long and weigh 18-30 grams, or about as much as 5 quarters. ( A quarter weighs about 5.7 grams.) They are cavity nesters, which means they use hollow trees and limbs for their nest. The males usually have a darker crown and are a slightly more vivid color than the females.

But their habit of climbing down a tree head first is the easiest way to spot them. When climbing down the tree, they depend on their sharp claws and their strong hind toes which they dig into the bark. They stretch one foot out under their breast and the other is placed back under their tail as they inch their way down the tree, checking each crevice for a juicy bug or one of their treasured seeds they had hidden earlier. Their toe arrangement is called "anisodactyl" meaning three toes forward and one toe back. The rear digit has the longest nail and aids in their climbing ability. In the winter, their diet is composed mostly of seeds, while in summer it is mostly insects. In spring and fall, they have a mixed diet of insects and seeds. So, if you have a chance, check these little wonders out and watch them as they explore a tree trunk! Tomorrow, we will learn about another nuthatch that is showing up at feeders all over Indiana this year, the Red-breasted Nuthatch!


Jill Russell said...

Hi Janet,
How do we get more information on Cornell's Feeder Watch program?

Janet Creamer said...

Hi Jill,

Good to hear from you! The link to Cornell's Project Feeder Watch is: