Red Breasted or White Breasted: Nuthatches Both Live Up to Their Names

If I pay attention to the Black Capped Chickadees in winter, I can usually also find Downy Woodpeckers, White Breasted and Red Breasted Nuthatches. These small birds often move in loose flocks through the forest taking advantage of each others’ company for protection from predators and perhaps using each others’ success to help find their own food.

Photo of Red Breasted Nuthatch on NaturalCrooksDotCom

Red Breasted Nuthatch Keeping an Eye on Me

So on a recent winter’s walk, I wasn’t surprised to find both kinds of Ontario’s Nuthatches enjoying black oil sunflower seeds from a feeder. I tried to coax them to feed from my hand on some peanuts, which the Black Capped Chickadees were quick to enjoy, but the Nuthatches weren’t interested.

Photo of White Breasted Nuthatch on NaturalCrooksDotCom

White Breasted Nuthatch

Someone had filled the feeder relatively recently and the Nuthatches (and some of the Chickadees) were taking advantage of this windfall. They weren’t eating the seeds, though. They were carrying them off to hide safely as a secret supply to eat during the next winter shortage.

Given the generous numbers of both Red and Grey Squirrels that I saw raiding the feeders, this was probably a sound strategy.

Photo of Red Squirrel On NaturalCrooksDotCom

This Red Squirrel is more concerned about the other Red Squirrel hogging the feeder than it is interested in me.

Whither the words “Nuthatch” in the Nuthatches’ Name?

According to various bird books, the name Nuthatch comes from this seed-storing behaviour. The theory is that someone called the birds Nuthatches after watching them hide the seeds. Personally, I doubt anyone could confuse jamming a sunflower seed into a tree trunk with brooding a nestful of eggs. I suspect the word is a corruption of some other earlier name.

Photo of Red Breasted Nuthatch Bill on NaturalCrooksDotCom

First I take the sunflower seed…

Photo of Red Breasted Nuthatch Bark on NaturalCrooksDotCom

…then I make it disappear.

AllAboutBirds says the “hatch” part refers to the way the birds sometimes wedge a seed into a tree trunk then hammer it open, thus “hatching” out the seed inside. I’m not convinced.

Hinterland Who’s Who says the name originally was nut-hack. If so, that might make more sense.

At least the Red and White Breasted part of their names makes sense. Although you should keep in mind that the White Breasted Nuthatch has some rusty streaks on its flanks and lower belly.


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