Bit by bit, the forest is beginning to come alive again, starting with the birds. Not a lot of songbirds stick around to brave a northern winter, but we have a few residents and they like to get an early start on things.
One of them is the Red Breasted Nuthatch. These little guys brighten my day even in the coldest stretches of winter. Their nasal ‘ank, ank, ank’ is toneless music to my ears, whether in the stillness of a frigid January morning or cutting through the cacophony of a spring dawn. They may not be the most melodic of songbirds, but I never get tired of hearing them, mainly because there’s so much character behind that voice.
Red-breasted Nuthatches are tiny, weighing in at a mere 8-13 g (about the same as 75¢ in quarters), but they pack an enormous amount of energy into that little fluffy body. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one sit still for more than a few seconds. They’re always on the move, bopping their way along branches and down tree trunks, searching for grubs and other insects hiding in the bark.
These birds actually evolved specifically to exploit this very unique niche. Nuthatches are designed to walk upside-down. Their backwards-facing toe has an elongated claw that hooks into the bark, anchoring the bird in its acrobatic pursuits. By inching their way down the tree, nutchatches manage to find the insects that other birds, like woodpeckers and creepers, miss working their way up.
Their boundless energy comes in handy for more than just foraging. They’re also one of the only hole-nesting songbirds to excavate their own nest. Just like a miniature woodpecker, little nuthatches drill their way into the wood, craving out a nest large enough to hold both adults and an average of 5 young. Although, nest building is usually the female’s job, with her mate bringing her snacks now and then, un-mated males will sometimes drill multiple nests at once in an effort to entice a female through house shopping.
I was lucky enough to find two nuthatch nests last spring. Once you spot them, they’re pretty easily identified by their sticky welcome mat. Adult birds line both the inside and outside of the entrance with globs of spruce and balsam sap, serving as a line of defence against insects and parasites that might want to find their way into the nest. Mom and Dad avoid getting stuck by shooting straight in and out of the hole. It’s really quite fun to watch.
However, my favourite thing about red-breasted nuthatches is their personality. For such a little bird, they can fill an entire forest with their presence. They’re always easy to spot in mixed feeding flocks, chasing off the larger chickadees and even jays while they stuff their beaks with seeds.
They are also very inquisitive and can also be tamed, though admittedly not as easily as chickadees. Still, I was fortunate to have one little female ‘adopt’ me as her personal feeder. ‘Squeaky’ became quite brazen after a while, landing on my shoulder as soon as I’d stepped out the door, wandering around my back and searching for the pocket that always held a bag of sunflower seeds. For two winters, I would look forward to her endless chatter as she came hurtling out of the trees like a feathered bullet, heading straight for my hand, often before it had any food in it.
Unfortunately, like most small songbirds, nuthatches aren’t especially long-lived. Squeaky disappeared after a few years and while I still have plenty of her relatives fluttering around my yard, I have yet to find another one quite like her. I’m hopeful, however, and always keep a bag of seeds in my pocket, just in case.