One of the most curious looking and behaving species of wild birds belongs to an avian group collectively called “nuthatches”.
In all, North America is home to four species of nuthatches—white-breasted, red-breasted, brown-headed, and pygmy nuthatches. The first two species live year ‘round here in Minnesota and both are common visitors to our backyard bird feeding stations, especially the white-breasted.
All nuthatches share similar body shape and features. Their squat stature, specialized and somewhat upturned slender pointed beaks, large heads, short tails, and short legs are so-designed for their particular feeding style. Inching their way headfirst up, down, and around tree trunks and limbs, nuthatches spend their arboreal lives clinging and climbing as they search for insects and other food atop, beneath, and between the fissures of bark and within pine cones and foliage.
About the unusual feeding manner of nuthatches, Mae Norton Morris, a poet, probably wrote it best when she described her encounter with a nuthatch:
“I saw a nuthatch on a tree
Going round and round.
It made me dizzy just to see
Him walking upside down!”
“I s'pose he was so busy there
Finding bugs to eat,
That he was thinking of his mouth,
And quite forgot his feet!”
A short time ago I wrote about my early December trip to the Nebraska Panhandle, a beautiful and breathtaking landscape in the Pine Ridge region of the state. This area of far northwest Nebraska is an escarpment between the Niobrara and White rivers that has over the eons eroded into a region of pine forested buttes, ridges, and deceptively deep canyons. What surprised me most about the area was the vast amount of forestland and birdlife.
During one afternoon as I hunted deer beneath the boughs of mature ponderosa and lodgepole pine trees, I stopped to study the activities of several nuthatches I observed doing what nuthatches do—climbing, feeding, and vocalizing noisily to each other. I immediately recognized two species—white-breasted and red-breasted—but I didn’t know what the third species was until I consulted my bird guidebook later in camp.
The nuthatch was smaller than even the tiny red-breasted nuthatch, and in the lowlight conditions of late afternoon shadows and pine greenery, the bird appeared of lighter color, too. Possessing as white a throat as its larger relative the white-breasted nuthatch, it dawned on me that I was indeed looking at an entirely different species of nuthatch. Later consult of my bird book revealed yet another bird species to add to my life list: the pygmy nuthatch.
Pygmy nuthatches are closely related to the brown-headed nuthatch found in southeastern/eastern United States. In fact the pygmy nuthatch is considered the “western counterpart” of the brown-headed nuthatch. Both species are only 3½ inches long and have darkish caps, though the pygmy’s cap is grayer.
Partial to pine forests of the American West, especially forests dominated by mature ponderosa pines, pygmy nuthatches are typically found in low to mid-elevation forestland. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, pygmy nuthatches are one of just a few songbirds in North America that enlist the support of “nest helpers.” Mated pairs frequently “. . . get assistance from relatives—including their own grown offspring—when raising a young brood.” These so-called helpers also help defend nests from competitors and predators, in addition to even sharing in the incubation and feeding duties.
Another interesting behavior that isn’t necessarily unique amongst birds, is the pygmy nuthatch’s penchant for “communal cuddling” (my phrase) by gathering together in large numbers inside tree cavities to survive cold winter nights.
However, what is distinctive, is that the pygmy nuthatch is one of only two North American species of birds to employ the three known energy-saving techniques for surviving long, cold winter nights: seeking shelter inside of tree cavities, huddling together for sharing body warmth, and entering into a state of torpor or mini-hibernation.
Indeed, as much as these unfamiliar and diminutive species of nuthatches brought me delight in a new environment, pygmy nuthatches also provided me with a familiarity of all things nuthatch, and thus, contentment. Nature—ever diverse, ever dynamic, and ever resilient—is but a wonder as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane is a regular Crookston Times columnist and he likes to hear from his readers. Email him your favorite outdoors experiences and wildlife encounters at firstname.lastname@example.org.