The gray-brown, deeply furrowed trunk of a venerable oak rises 80 feet into the winter sky, casting a sharp black shadow on the pale yellow siding of our neighbor’s house. The bare tree’s intricate shadow suggests a contemplative Japanese ink painting.
Interrupting the static design, though, is an energetic little bird. He is clinging to the trunk, but heading headfirst down the tree—a Cirque du Soleil acrobat whose powerful barrel chest easily supports his inverted frame.
The white-breasted nuthatch, which has a narrow black cap and nape leading to a blue-gray back and wings, stopped for a moment and craned his head back at a right angle, In that distinctive pose, his white face and breast are his most pronounced features. Moments later, he continued down the trunk in search of insects.
I am recovering faster than I expected from recent surgery, but not yet ready to go trekking through the woods in search of some hardy winter birds. Instead, I’m in the house, enjoying the quiet of an early December afternoon and watching the seasons change.
Thanks to the big oak, I’m also getting a chance to enjoy the nuthatch, a bird that’s not usually seen in suburban yards.
Many small birds cling upside down while feeding on pine cones, flower seeds or even our backyard thistle feeders. But nuthatches are unique in their ability to climb down a tree trunk in search of food.
At just less than 6 inches and weighing about three-quarters of an ounce, the white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) that I am watching is a small– to average-size songbird. But in the diminutive world of the nuthatch family, he is the largest of the five species found in North America.
White-breasted nuthatches are relatively common birds, found in wooded areas with plenty of mature trees. Oaks and pines are their favorites. They are seen in virtually every state where the habitat is suitable, and their numbers are thought to be increasing in most parts of the country.
In some respects, the white-breasted nuthatch looks like a woodpecker. It has a rather long bill, hunts for food in the crevices of trees and has the undulating flight characteristic of woodpeckers. Watch long enough, and one can even see the bird hammer away with its sturdy beak, which has a slight but noticeable upward tilt on the bottom bill.
Unlike woodpeckers, though, the intent of the hammering is usually not to open up rotting wood to expose insects for consumption. Instead, the white-breasted nuthatch, after grabbing a nut or seed, will frequently fly to a nearby limb. There, the bird wedges its meal into a crevice and pecks at it to open the seed or shell. It is this behavior that gives the bird its name: He is a nut “hacker.”
In addition to nuts and seeds, white-breasted nuthatches eat insect eggs and larvae. They hoard excess food during the summer and fall for use during the winter, as they are generally year-round residents wherever they live. These food caches can be quite numerous, but each one is very small, sometimes consisting of a single seed.
The bird’s cousin, the brown-headed nuthatch, is one of the few North American birds to use tools. This southeastern bird will use bits of wood to pry off loose pieces of bark to get at the insects that lie within.
The sexes look very similar. In the female, the cap and nape are more gray than black, and her back and wing coloration is also slightly paler and less sharply defined than the male.
Immature birds, as is the norm, resemble females.
White-breasted nuthatches have a buff patch at the base of their bellies in an area called the vent. This is usually not seen except in flight. Also visible on the wing is the short, wide tail with its vertical white stripes. Given its foraging methods, it is no surprise that this nuthatch has strong feet and toes.
The birds nest in tree cavities, although white-breasted nuthatches don’t excavate these holes themselves. They lay their eggs in a nest of wood chips and vegetable matter.
Typically, they hatch one brood each year, and the next generation is ready for breeding in a year. The birds are monogamous during the season, but appear to take different mates in successive years.
Ornithologists are uncertain why white-breasted nuthatches have evolved that odd behavior of climbing down tree trunks headfirst. Some suggest that the change in perspective allows the nuthatch to see insects and seeds that upward-facing birds might miss in the labyrinth of a big tree’s bark.
As I look out at the world from the enforced confinement of my recovery, I am inclined to support this theory. My schedule has been turned upside down. Instead of my usual hectic activity level, I am approaching life at a slower pace. The change allows me to take advantage of some overlooked opportunities. Unread books come off the shelf. Uncommon birds appear in plain view. I watch the nuthatch successfully navigating the world from his unique perspective and realize that sometimes all that is needed is a change in viewpoint to reveal a world of new opportunities.