By Casey First
The White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is a plump and dainty little songbird that is a year-round resident of Western North Carolina. Often seen perched upside-down on the bark of a tree with their head and bill stretched upward, their pose is unmistakable. Unmistakable also is the way they scale the side of a tree trunk, darting in an almost random fashion while looking for their next nibble in bark crevices. They often descend from the tops of trees and shimmy down headfirst, stopping to hoist their necks up and back for a quick look around as they make their way down the trunk.
The Nuthatch has a grayish-blue backside and a vibrant white belly and face with a kiss of amber underneath its short tail. They have no distinguishable neck, yet have a very agile head that seems to pop up and off their body. It appears that they are wearing a white hood adorned with a black streak on the crown of their head.
Although small, they are the largest in the Nuthatch family and are a very vocal little bird for their size. One can identify them by their call of a series of short and almost nasally low-pitched wha-wha-wha sounds that last a few seconds.
Insectivores by nature, they also fancy a split peanut at a backyard feeder or a peck of suet, but can be a little feisty when competition arrives. They are a very territorial bunch and are usually seen in pairs and known to exhibit a unique wing-flicking display in an attempt to scare away their feathered foes. The White-breasted Nuthatch dwells in mature woods and woodland edges, but can also be seen in larger open areas with older trees, like parks and wooded suburbs.
During nesting season in early spring to mid-summer, they look for empty cavities that woodpeckers have excavated or nest boxes in which to raise their young. If you have a Bluebird box out, you may be lucky enough to have a Nuthatch take up residence as they don’t mind nest holes that are larger than they are. The female builds the nest alone and often uses the bark they forage on and lines the inside with softer materials like furs, feathers and grasses.
In October and the months leading up to colder weather, the White-breasted Nuthatch will scurry rapidly for what is left of the summer crop in anticipation of colder days ahead. You can witness the Nuthatch caching food to build up their reservoir when the air is colder, and food is not readily available, as many other birds do during this time of year. At a backyard bird feeder, you will see them jetting between food and nearby trees as they store seeds and nuts in furrows for later use. In winter, they present a unique behavior—they will follow behind other songbirds like titmice and chickadees as they forage for food, relying on other birds’ intuition to make sure the passage is safe from predators. Be on the lookout now and in the coming months for this adorable frequent flier!
Casey First is owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, located at 946 Merrimon Avenue, Suite 120, in Asheville. Monthly bird events are free and open to the public, with no registration required. To learn more, visit NorthAsheville.wbu.com. Stephanie Sipp is a professional nature illustrator and educator who creates joyful images of animals, birds, flowers and places which are celebrated by followers both regionally and online.