Red-breasted nuthatch is the upside-down bird

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Cathy Carnes, Special to the Times Herald

This red-breasted nuthatch has a wide black line that runs either side of the eye; the white-breasted has a very thin black eye line. (Photo by Cathy Carnes)

We enjoy watching the nuthatches as they cling, usually head down on our suet feeder pecking out a meal. Upon consulting my birding field guides, I find that the species we are watching is the red-breasted nuthatch (sitta canadensis).

The white-breasted nuthatch is also seen in Wisconsin. A good way to tell the two species apart is by its black eye line. In the red-breasted nuthatch this is a wide black line that runs either side of the eye; the white-breasted has a very thin black eye line. Both species have black caps, rusty colored underparts, long sharp bills, short tails and necks, and grey-blue back and tail feathers.

A small (about sparrow-sized) bird, its flight is short and bouncy. While much of Wisconsin is part of the red-breasted nuthatch’s year-round range, the greater part of its range lies in Canada and the northeast and western United States. They nest in conifer or mixed conifer/hardwood forests. Look for them in forests with spruce, fir, pine, hemlock, larch and/or cedars, as well as around aspens and poplars.

In the Midwest, nuthatches begin breeding in mid- to late-April or before. The male can be quite a performer when seeking to capture the affections of a female. He courts her with a little dance during which he turns his back to her, raises his head, drops his wings and sways side to side. He also feeds her while courting, a thoughtful suitor. They nest in existing tree cavities or excavate nests in well-rotted wood, a reason why they prefer habitats with older trees. Keeping those older trees around helps many cavity nesting birds like the nuthatches find homes and food.

Nuthatches are good at defending their nest against other bird species that may covet such a nice space. One way they do this is to collect resin from conifer trees and paste it around the opening of their nest cavity. This appears to deter birds or small mammals from entering their nests less they get sticky feet. The nuthatches avoid the sticky resin by their targeted flight; they can fly straight into their nest hole.

Nuthatches eat invertebrates including insects, spiders and their eggs and larvae which they also commonly feed to their young. In the winter, the red-breasted nuthatch depends heavily on conifer seeds (from pine cones) for food; they also eat sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet from feeders.

One of the fun distinguishing behaviors exhibited by nuthatches is the way they rapidly creep up, down, and sideways along tree trunks and limbs probing for food in crevices or under bark. The upside down feeding behavior has earned them the moniker of “upside down” bird. They are also known to “cache,” or store food in crevasses of a pine trees, cover it with bark and eat it later in the winter.

Listen for the song of the red-breasted nuthatch. It is rather a nasal fast repeating high pitched yank-yank-yank-yank call. Put up a suet feeder and keep an eye out for these colorful quick footed birds hanging from your feeder or creeping down a nearby tree. Their quick energetic movements will liven up your yard.