I sat down to eat my lunch in the sun just a couple of feet from the tray of bird seed — and they flew down to grab their own lunch even with me sitting close enough to touch them.
I’ve always considered the chickadees to be the boldest visitors to our backyard feeders. I changed my mind that recent afternoon. While I ate, several nuthatches courageously landed on the seed tray and grabbed a morsel when the chickadees would only dart past.
This summer our backyard feeders have been especially popular with nuthatches and chickadees, with a downy woodpecker and an occasional Steller’s jay stopping by the suet feeder. The hummingbird feeder draws rufous hummingbirds and wasps.
We always have at least a handful of chickadees all year long — both chestnut-backed and black-capped — but this summer we have more nuthatches than usual in our Coos Bay yard. We see more than one nuthatch at a time as they’ll sometimes bomb each other, with one flushing another out of a feeder. It’s also clear there are several birds because there’s the tiniest difference between individuals in the brightness of the reddish underside.
Red-breasted nuthatches are the most boldly colored North American nuthatch, pale buffy-orange below and soft blue-gray above, with a dark cap and prominent white stripe above the eye and at the chin. The sturdy, very pointed, and slightly upturned bill of the nuthatch looks like an extension of the black eyestripe. Including their short, wren-like tails, these nuthatches are about 4.5 inches long.
Their sharply-pointed bill shape says “insect eater” to me, but nuthatches are omnivores. Most of the year, nuthatches feed primarily on small arthropods (such as insects and spiders), but they also eat seeds and small nuts, and may even store seeds. I’ve watched them energetically flip through the hulls in the open feeder to select a whole black sunflower seed before flying off with their prize.
In fact, nuthatches get their name from their habit of wedging large seeds into bark and “hatching” (think “hatchet”) into them with their sharp and sturdy bills. Nuthatches are frequent winter visitors to seed feeders, too, often flocking there with chickadees and kinglets.
It’s my guess that there’s a nuthatch family nesting in the century-old elm on the north side of the house. With the old tree’s thick, rough bark and occasional rotten branch stub, there’s lots of habitat for nuthatch food and many likely cavities for a nuthatch nest.
There are also white-breasted nuthatches and pygmy nuthatches in Oregon, but pygmy nuthatches are generally found east of the Cascades and white-breasted nuthatches have been reported in Coos County only rarely.
While the chickadees fly up immediately to the edge of the feeder, sometimes the nuthatches will land first on a nearby upright post or on the railing beneath the feeder: Nuthatches have sharp, particularly long, curved claws that help them hang on to vertical surfaces. Especially agile, nuthatches move up and down and across tree trunks (or deck railing), sometimes head up, sometimes head down, and will work all the way out to the tips of branches.
And nuthatches don’t just travel upside-down. I’ve watched them feeding on the suet block while upside-down — even swallowing bites of suet-sticky seeds while upside-down.
A handful of seeds can entice very daring and entertaining lunch companions.
(Marty Giles is owner/operator of Wavecrest Discoveries, long-running nature guiding service on the southern Oregon Coast.)