Birding: Nuthatches offer an incredible climbing ability |

Birding: Nuthatches offer an incredible climbing ability

Larry Collins
Free Press Home & Garden Columnist
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto

What is with that crazy bird? Why does he just climb down the tree then fly to the top and then climb down again? It is a nuthatch. It’s habit of hopping headfirst down tree trunks helps it see insects and insect eggs that birds climbing up the trunk might miss.

Their incredible climbing ability is due to its foot having one big toe (the hallux) that faces backward, while its other three toes face forward. It is able to walk head first down the trunks of trees by moving only one foot at a time while the hallux toe on the other foot holds firmly to the bark.

The name nuthatch probably results from the corruption of the word “nuthack,” which refers to its habit of wedging a seed into a crevice and hacking away at the seed with its beak until the seed opens.

We have three different species of nuthatches in this area: the white-breasted, red-breasted, and pygmy nuthatches.

The white-breasted is the largest nuthatch. It is still a small bird with a large head and almost no neck. The tail is very short, and the long, narrow bill is straight or slightly upturned. They are gray-blue on the back, with a frosty white face and under parts. The black or gray cap and neck frame the face and make it look like this bird is wearing a hood. The lower belly and under the tail are often chestnut.

The red-breasted nuthatch is an intense bundle of energy at your feeder. Red-breasted nuthatches are tiny, active birds of north woods and western mountains. These long-billed, short-tailed songbirds travel through tree canopies with chickadees, kinglets, and woodpeckers but stick to tree trunks and branches, where they also search bark furrows for hidden insects. They creep up, down, and sideways without regard for which way is up, and they don’t lean against their tail the way woodpeckers do. Flight is short and bouncy. Their excitable yank-yank calls sound like tiny tin horns being honked in the treetops.

Red-breasted nuthatches are blue-gray birds with strongly patterned heads: a black cap and stripe through the eye broken up by a white stripe over the eye. The under parts are rich rusty-cinnamon, paler in females.

Small even by nuthatch standards, pygmy nuthatches are tiny bundles of hyperactive energy that climb up and down ponderosa pines giving rubber-ducky calls to their flock mates. Their foraging practices are similar to the other two species.

Pygmy nuthatches breed in large extended-family groups, which is one reason why you’ll often see a half-dozen at a time. They can be seen in open forests of older ponderosa pines across the West.

They have buffy-white under parts which sets off a crisp brown head with a sharp line through the eye, slate-gray back and wings, and sharp, straight bill. The under parts are whitish to pale buff.

These energetic songbirds move constantly and give short, squeaky calls, often mixing with chickadees, kinglets, and other songbirds. Pygmy nuthatches are highly social: they breed cooperatively and also pile in to cavities in groups to roost communally on cold winter nights.

Pygmy nuthatches favor living among pine trees, red-breasted nuthatches specialize in spruce and fir trees, and white-breasted nuthatches favor mature deciduous forests.

Other than foraging for insects and insect eggs, the nuthatch is a common visitor of bird feeders and is fond of sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet.

Some of the information for this article was taken from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Local bird expert and Free Press columnist Larry Collins owns Wild Birds Unlimited, 2454 Hwy. 6&50, which caters to folks who want the best backyard bird-feeding experience possible. Email your bird-feeding and birding questions to

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