When nuthatches stow seeds, they might be attracting insects

A reader wrote me: “Today I noticed a little tree wren (I don’t know what else to call it) that is gray with a dark head and a white stripe along each side above the eye. It has a pointy little beak and a short tail.” This description from someone wanting to know more about her mystery bird was terrific. It could only be a nuthatch. The words, “a little tree wren,” are a wonderful description of these busy little birds.

The reader’s primary interest wasn’t to learn the bird’s correct name. She wanted to know more about its actions. It was coming to the feeders, selecting a seed and then hiding the seed in the bark of a nearby tree. That’s what nuthatches do. Anyone who feeds black sunflower seeds to their birds has watched them do this. At least one question enters everyone’s mind when they see a nuthatch tucking a seed away. Are they really going to come back and eat it? Sharron suggested something I’ve never considered. Were they using the seeds as bait for insects they hoped to eat?

If you watch these birds working over the different trees, it is pretty obvious they are looking for something. They use their “pointy” bill to pry and poke about in the tree bark. They do eat insects, but maybe they are looking for seeds stashed by themselves or someone else. The bird’s common name illustrates that its actions have been observed for many decades. I can’t write what our neighbor once said on this subject because I know next to nothing about the French language. He pronounced “nut-stash” with a perfect French accent that was something like a slurred “nuthatch.”

Another explanation for the bird’s common name suggests it comes from the way it hacks open seeds like the black sunflower seeds and eats the heart. “Hatch” is said to be a corruption of “hack.” Well, it will have to remain a mystery, “nut-stash” or “nut-hack.” I prefer the nuthatch when it is being said with a French accent.

We have both white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches in this part of the country. Here in the Pacific Northwest the most common species is the red-breasted. The white-breasted are more commonly seen on the eastern side of the mountains. They are also found on the western slope of the Cascades, even into the Puget Sound area. If you have the tempting small black sunflower seeds in your feeders, you are probably familiar with nuthatches. However, they are a bird many people never spot. When someone sees one for the first time it is difficult to ignore. They’re interesting little birds. Their small pointy beak turns up slightly at the end. This facilitates its picking and prying in tree bark and other tight places.

With their upturned bill, rather longish head and short tail, they are streamlined little birds. When feeding, they start near the tree’s top and work their way downward. Circling the trunk, they pause and poke and pry tempting morsels from the cracks and crevices.

When nuthatches are establishing nesting territories or communicating with one another, their call is a nasal, “enk, enk, enk” sound. It has been described as mimicking a tiny, toy tin horn. Right now, this call isn’t being heard in our yard. That indicates nesting is well along. Either the female is brooding her clutch of eggs or there are young in the nest. If you have a bird house the nuthatches are occupying, you can watch both the male and the female feed the young. They usually line the bird house opening with pitch. It is fascinating to see how easily they can fly through it and not get any on their feathers. These are attractive, fascinating birds, and it won’t be long before noisy broods of young ones start learning how to use the feeders and the bird bath.