Hear male and female white-breasted nuthatches calling back and forth.
This small forest bird is common in all of the United States except for the central Great Plains and parts of the desert west. In New Mexico it can be seen year-round in all but the southeastern corner of the state, and is found primarily in winter in woodlands of the eastern plains. The white belly and cheeks contrast with the black cap and nape. The back is blue-gray and the feathers of the lower belly are rusty colored. The bill is long and stout and the head appears to be attached to the body without a neck.
The nuthatch forages on tree trunks and limbs, searching for insects under the bark during summer, as well as gleaning seeds and nuts in fall and winter. Surplus acorns and hickory nuts are stored in tree dens or under loose bark. They also visit bird feeders. Foraging behavior is fascinating to watch, as the birds quickly navigate around on the tops and bottoms of limbs, clinging upside-down with no problem. A common posture is head pointed downward on a tree trunk with the head angled upward for observation.
White-breasted nuthatches are found in deciduous and pine-hardwood forests, whereas the other nuthatch species, red-breasted, brown-headed, and pygmy nuthatches, prefer pine forests. I have seen both white-breasted and pygmy nuthatches
while hiking in the pine-hardwood forests in the Cibola National Forest. Nuthatches are normally secondary cavity nesters, depending upon another species to excavate tree dens or needing to find natural cavities. They have been known to occasionally excavate their own nest cavity. I have found nuthatches nesting in squirrel nest boxes which I put on trees while conducting flying squirrel population research. Nuthatches will also travel around in flocks of chickadees and titmice in winter. This flocking behavior may benefit the birds by providing additional eyes to detect the presence of predators.
White-breasted nuthatches are monogamous, and pairs stay together year-round and do not migrate. They forage together and you will normally see both birds in close proximity when one is spotted. Clutches contain from 5-9 eggs; the relatively large brood sizes are thought to compensate for the short expected life span of the nuthatch, which is 2-3 years. The female incubates the eggs for about two weeks and both parents feed the chicks for about three weeks until they are ready to fly. Hawks and owls prey on nuthatches as well as snakes, such as the rat snake, which climbs trees and raids bird nests. Eggs may also be taken by tree squirrels and woodpeckers. Adults may try to make the nest entrance less noticeable to predators by taking a piece of mammal hair or vegetation and rubbing that around the nest hole to camouflage the odors of the nest or smearing crushed insects on the bark, which is thought to repel squirrels.
With an estimated total population of some 10 million individuals, white-breasted nuthatches are considered a stable and unthreatened species.
Photos taken at Oak Flat recreation area in Cibola National Forest, near Tijeras, NM. Nikon P900 camera.
James Taulman is a semi-retired research wildlife biologist, having worked with the U.S. Forest Service research branch and taught zoology, ecology, and other courses in several university positions. He is currently living in the East Mountains, and explores natural areas observing native wildlife and conducting independent research projects.