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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog

Animal of the Week: White-breasted Nuthatch

A small bird that is found in parks, yards, and seen at bird feeders throughout the year is this week's animal of the week. The White-breasted Nuthatch is a small agile bird that is often seen going down a tree head first.

The White-breasted Nuthatch is the largest of the nuthatch family. Though it is the biggest in its family, the nuthatches are small birds. They have a large head, short tail, and a long, narrow, straight bill. They are grey-blue on their backs and white on their chins, faces and underparts. A black or grey cap and neck frame the face of this bird and make it easy to identify.

White-breasted Nuthatches can be found in a number of different habitats. They prefer mature woods and tend to favor deciduous woods over coniferous woods. They are common in open wooded areas like yards, parks, and wood edges where large mature trees are present. The White-breasted Nuthatch forages up, down, and sideways over tree trunks. They often store food under loose bark throughout their territory. White-breasted Nuthatches are territorial birds throughout the year, but they will join foraging flocks in the winter months that include chickadees and titmice.

White-breasted Nuthatches primarily eat insects and insect larva. They feed on a number of wood boring larvae and eat caterpillars, including invasive species like tent caterpillars and gypsy moths. They also eat seeds and nuts. They get their common name from their habit of putting the nut under tree bark and hitting the nut to "hatch" the seed or meat of the nut from its shell. To attract them to a bird feeder, use sunflower seeds, peanuts, suet, and peanut butter.

White-breasted Nuthatches are cavity nesters and will utilize old woodpecker holes or natural cavities. Though they will sometimes enlarge the cavities, they rarely excavate the cavity on their own. They will occasionally use a nest box.

Fun White-breasted Nuthatch Facts:

  1. White-breasted Nuthatches form mate pairs that stay together throughout the year. However, the male will push the female aside during foraging. The female will spend more time keeping an eye out for the male. The female also builds the nest alone. The male on the other hand finds many benefits to the pairing, as he does not have to watch for predators as much as he would if he were alone.
  2. White-breasted Nuthatches like to store food for later. You may see a nuthatch going to a feeder collecting more seeds than it could be eating. It is likely that the bird is caching seeds under loose bark around its territory.

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