Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Tale of Two Nuthatches

While doing some cleaning up in the yard a week or so ago, I heard the familiar yap yap yap of a nuthatch above me. Until that moment, I hadn't realized that I hadn't heard them in awhile.  Some find their repetitive chatter annoying, but I like it.

As I worked around the large oak tree just outside our back door, I looked up at the feeder, and saw two red-breasted nuthatches looking for food there. The feeder was nearly empty and I made a mental note to fill it when I finished my work.


Red-breasted nuthatches??

White-breasted nuthatch
Sitta carolinensis
The white-breasted nuthatches are fairly common here, but seeing a red-breasted was not. According to the Cornell website, Ohio is home to the white-breasted nuthatch year round, but it's only in winter when the red-breasted stays here. And experience has told me that even then, they aren't all that commonly seen here in northwest Ohio, likely due to our being on the northern border of their wintering grounds. The last time I'd seen one was back in 2007, when one was just passing through in August.

What's the difference between a red-breasted nuthatch and a white-breasted one?

The answer to that might seem obvious, but it can be confusing. The red-breasted nuthatch has a cinnamon-colored breast, as you might expect. But the white-breasted also has some cinnamon coloring to its underside, closer to the tail. The best way to distinguish between the two is by their eye markings. The red-breasted has a distinctive black band running through its eye area. The white-breasted does not.

I filled the feeders and then watched to see if they would stick around and dine some more. As luck would have it, I didn't see any for several days after that. But this morning, they're here in numbers. One by one, they fly in to grab a seed from the platform feeder and take it to the safety of the tree. Over and over, they make the trip to the feeder and back. They're eating from the hanging feeder too.

Red-breasted nuthatch
Sitta canadensis

There's a reason we're seeing red-breasted nuthatches here. We're experiencing an irruption.  When birds travel in numbers outside their usual territory, it's most often due to a shortage of food. This year, there was a decline in the number of pine cones - one of the red-breasted nuthatch's favorite foods - in the north. So, they went in search of them elsewhere. My yard!

Northern birders have been reporting regular sightings of them since the irruption began in August.  This graph, adapted from, shows the frequency with which the red-breasted nuthatch has been seen at a nearby observation station (seven miles from our house) for the year so far:

Sightings are definitely UP!

Of course I'm hoping they'll stay all winter and maybe if I keep the feeders full, they will. Even if they don't, I'm sure enjoying them now!

Red-breasted nuthatch
Sitta canadensis


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