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A woodpecker it's not; the Nuthatch

Winter in our parts brings a stillness and quiet unmatched at any other time of year. Accounting for this relative calm are a few factors. First, it's cold and not a lot of people are out mowing lawns, walking, playing ball, etc. Because of the temperatures there are no flying insects buzzing about. Also, most birds are absent, having gone to points south of us. Those that are here are largely silent. Of the few birds making themselves vocally known this time of year, perhaps none is more distinctive than the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). Its unique call - a very nasal "yank" - often breaks what would be a mostly hushed experience while walking through snowy parks or woods.

The White-breasted Nuthatch is the largest of four nuthatch species native to North America, approaching six inches in length. As its common name suggests, its breast and underparts are white with varying amounts of rust under its short tail. The bird's crown and nape are blackish. Blue-gray upperparts stand in contrast to a bright white face punctuated by a black eye and straight gray bill. Sexes are similar, although the crown of males is quite black while females are more grayish.

It is a resident, mostly non-migratory, bird found over much of the U.S. and southern Canada. This animal prefers mature deciduous trees as opposed to its smaller cousin--the Red-breasted Nuthatch (the only other nuthatch we'd expect to see here)--which inhabits spruce and fir areas of the continent.

In addition to being permanent residents, this bird is known to be monogamous and territorial throughout the year. Pairs are already exhibiting courtship behavior with males singing (a series of somewhat loud "what, what, what" notes) from high up in the trees. Female partners will respond by approaching him and perching. At this time a careful observer may witness what is called "mate-feeding," where the male places a bit of food in the bill of the female. It breeds twice a year in southerly latitudes but I suspect one brood is more common here.

Nuthatches feed on seeds, nuts and insects in a fashion not unlike woodpeckers, but with a twist. A woodpecker will work a tree by inching up, while a nuthatch peculiarly creeps headfirst down the tree, often hanging upside down. It searches bark crevasses for food morsels occasionally tapping wood, again like woodpeckers.

This bird is a common visitor to backyard feeders where it will readily take sunflower seeds or other bits, carry them off to a branch, and beat them open. It is thought the word nuthatch is a derivative of "nuthack," a behavioral description of this seed blasting.

In yet another similarity between them and woodpeckers (to which they are not related), nuthatches roost and nest in tree cavities. Although it doesn't usually drill its own nest hole like a woodpecker; a nuthatch prefers instead to utilize and improve upon an existing one.

In and around these nest holes, another exceptional behavior takes place. Nuthatches are known to bill-sweep. That is, taking insects or smelly vegetation and sweeping the nearby wood with it. Perhaps it's an attempt to cover its own scent, thereby thwarting predators.

This time of year it is fairly common to see White-breasted Nuthatches in mixed foraging flocks, usually with chickadees. But while hyperactive chickadees dart about with boundless energy, the larger nuthatches will be creeping along trunks and branches in a more studied fashion.

However we encounter it, give this species some credit. With its sometimes comical behavior and distinct vocalizations, the White-breasted Nuthatch can provide needed relief from our long silent winters.