Wild WNY / Nuthatches
“...a droll, earnest little bird"
The white-breasted nuthatch
One of my favorite passages about birds is Winsor Marrett Tyler’s introduction to his account of the white-breasted nuthatch in Bent’s Life Histories of North American Birds: “The white-breasted nuthatch is a droll, earnest little bird, rather sedate and unemotional. He is no great musician and seems to lack a sense of humor. He has none of the irrepressible fidgetiness of the house wren, none of the charming happiness of the song sparrow; he appears to take life on a matter-of-fact level. He is short-necked, broad-shouldered, sturdy, quick and sure in his motions, suggesting an athlete, and as we study him on his daily round, as he hops up and down over the bark, we see that he is an athlete with marked skill as an acrobat, like the tumbling kind, as much at home upside down as right side up.”
Anyone who manages a feeder or spends time in our woodlands will recognize this busy little bird most often seen spiraling down the bole of a tree or dashing up to a feeding tray to grab and quickly make off with a sunflower seed. As easily tamed as chickadees, this species too can be coaxed to take a seed from your hand.
And you don’t have to see them to know that they are around. Their familiar nasal yank calls, often repeated five or six times, announce their presence.
Ask a young child what they notice about nuthatches, and they will immediately respond, “They are upside-down birds.” Indeed they do differ from the chickadees, kinglets, creepers, and woodpeckers with whom they consort in winter and during migration. When that child asks, “Why do they do that?” you might suggest that these birds have discovered that they can find food that the up-facing birds do not see by looking from this different vantage point.
At this time of year, male nuthatches pay little attention to females, but come April this will change. If you watch them then, you may see a male courting a female, feeding her directly or placing seeds where she will find them conveniently. He may bow to her or squeak what to them might pass as a song. They will then pair off, find a cavity in which to nest—an old woodpecker hole, a natural cavity, or, occasionally, even a birdhouse—and raise a family, with a clutch of as many as ten eggs. You would think that, at this rate, we would soon be overrun with nuthatches, but that doesn’t take into account the perilous life of such small birds. Next year, their population will be about the same, their ranks having been thinned by predators, harsh weather, and, in rare cases, old age, which for them might be three or four years.
I have said nothing so far about the much less common—except in brief migration intervals—red-breasted nuthatch. Here is what Tyler has to say about them: “The red-breasted nuthatch is a happy, jolly little bird, surprisingly quick and agile in his motions. He has the habit of progressing over the bark of trees like his larger relative, the white-breast, but his tempo is much more rapid. … Here he winds about the little twigs out to the end, among the pine needles, moving very fast. … He is more sociable, too, than the larger bird, and when a little company is feeding together they keep up a cheery chatter among themselves.”
If you are fortunate, this species, too, will appear at your feeding station. It is easy to distinguish them from white-breasted nuthatchs not only by their size, but also by the black line running through their eye; the larger bird has an all-white cheek. Males and females of both species are very similar in appearance. Red-breasted nuthatches I find more often in pine woods, white-breasted nuthatches among hardwoods.
Once when visiting my wife’s family in Alabama, I watched a pair of what I took to be red-breasted nuthatches that dropped down from the long-leafed pines in their yard to their feeder. But then I noticed a color difference. I realized that I was watching a southern species I had never recorded before: the brown-headed nuthatch.
Great black-backed Gull flying over the Niagara River.
Addressing cabin fever
In my view, February is the worst month. There are only three things I can think of in its favor: first, it is short; second, Lake Erie is usually frozen over and, thus, we don’t have those lake effect snowstorms that beset us in December and January; and, finally, toward the end of the month, things begin to get better.
The best advice I can give others who feel the same is don’t sit around and mope; bundle up, get out, and confront it. Address February head on.
Beside the skiing, ice skating, and sledding, there are plenty of birds to be seen. In particular, the upper Niagara River supports waterfowl by the thousands, some of them very attractive and worth seeing. There you’ll find buffleheads, golden-eyes, American and red-breasted mergansers, long-tailed ducks, redheads, canvasbacks, tundra swans and, yes, Canada geese—they may be a nuisance species, but they are handsome.
If you continue downstream to the lower Niagara River, you’ll find thousands of gulls, and it is not hard to easily distinguish a half-dozen or more distinct gull species. Our commonest gull is the ring-billed gull, appropriately named and easy to pick out by the black ring around its bill. There are small tern-like birds, such as Bonaparte’s gulls, as well as more imposing herring, great black-backed and glaucous gulls. We usually think of gulls as white birds, but most species have black wing-tips. Two all-white gulls, however, are that glaucous gull and the medium-sized Iceland gull.
The best place to see those waterfowl is along the parkway on the Canadian side, and best for gulls is on either side of the river at the Power Project.
Interesting land birds may be fewer and farther between, but a trip to the Lake Ontario plains will often turn up snow buntings. Watching a flock of those lovely birds rise off a field like snowflakes is a wonderful sight. Often with them are darker Lapland longspurs and horned larks. Along those plains, you will also often find snowy owls, rough-legged hawks, bald eagles, and, at dusk, short-eared owls. And if you are really fortunate, you may see a rarer visitor: a hawk owl or a great gray owl or a gyrfalcon.
Take those trips and you’ll be ready to relax and review your adventures with a hot chocolate or toddy in front of an open fire.
Naturalist Gerry Rising is the author of Birds and Birdwatching.