OUR KNOWLEDGE ABOUT how birds use our gardens is growing; different types of bird feeders, natural plant foods, shelter and water will attract different species, and this gives us an idea of what resources they are lacking in the wider countryside. However, the resources that we provide can only supplement those available in the surrounding habitat, and every garden birdwatcher knows that the birds they see will depend on the natural populations nearby. In my garden, at the fringe of the fens, surrounded by arable farmland with only scattered trees, I have never seen a Nuthatch, and accept that I probably never will. These are birds that need woodland; they are found not too far away, in Thetford Forest, but we know from the most recent Bird Atlas that this species is very thinly scattered across much of East Anglia, with Thetford Forest being a hotspot. Despite my best efforts, a few peanut feeders are not enough to sustain Nuthatches in such an unfavourable area. In more heavily wooded parts of the UK, such as Wales and southern England, Nuthatches are much more abundant, and here they are common garden visitors. Often likened to small woodpeckers, with their strong bills and front-heavy silhouettes, they are as happy clinging to a tree trunk or feeder upside-down as the right way up. In their preferred woodland habitats they forage along trunks and branches for invertebrates and on bird feeders they are bold and aggressive, scattering other birds. While they naturally nest in tree cavities like Blue and Great Tits, they will often plaster the cavity and entrance hole with mud to adjust the size; in boxes they may completely plaster the inside so the lid can’t be opened. Weekly garden bird counts from BTO’S Garden Birdwatch (GBW) give us insights into how and why Nuthatches come into gardens. Throughout most of the year Nuthatches are generally seen in about 15% of GBW gardens, but in some years numbers in autumn show a sharp dip, while in other years the rates in September and October climb to over 25% of gardens. The cause is the variability of their natural food supply; in autumn Nuthatches switch to feeding on seeds, SEED HATCH You may attract Nuthatches to your garden, but only if they are nearby to start with The BTO runs volunteer surveys to monitor and explain changes in bird populations. To find out more about the Waterways Breeding Bird Survey visit but natural tree crops vary hugely, with boom and bust years following one another. In years when seed crops are poor, Nuthatches are able to fall back on garden feeders, and this explains the peaks in Nuthatch counts in gardens in those years. This goes to show that in certain situations gardens can provide important supporting resources, meaning that, unlike in my own garden, bird feeders can really make a difference for Nuthatches. Results from the Breeding Bird Survey show that Nuthatch numbers have increased rapidly since the 1970s, and this increase has been accompanied by a northward range expansion into northern England and Scotland, where this species was formerly absent. They are very sedentary birds, and do not move far from their breeding grounds in the winter, and it is thought that in the past winter conditions have limited their numbers. More recently, milder winters may have allowed the population to expand, and it’s also possible that the fall back of garden food supplies have also helped to sustain their numbers through hard times.
Kate Risely is the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden Birdwatch Organiser
Despite my best efforts, a few peanut feeders are not enough to sustain Nuthatches in such an unfavourable area