The Nuthatch may be a ‘bird table bandit’ but its lovely looks and unique gravity-defying qualities make it a very special bird indeed
sticks up for that ‘bird table bandit’, the Nuthatch. Read about its unique qualities, which include the ability to defy gravity!
THE SMART, BLUE-GREY back of the bird caught my eye as I gazed out of the window. Flying straight towards the bird table, it alighted, scattering seed everywhere and chasing the smaller and Great Tits from it, the distinctive robber-blue like mask of the black eye stripe showed well in the sun, as the bird thrust its dagger-like bill at a returning tit, before it grabbed a nut and was off. Another smash and grab by the bird table bandit!
I think it was the late naturalist Phil Drabble who described the Nuthatch as a bandit, the name not only reflecting the black eye mask of the bird, but also its behaviour at bird tables. If they are bandits, they are certainly very dashing ones, decked out in a livery that would do any dandy highwayman proud. The blue grey back and wings are contrasted by the white cheeks and warm orange buff colouring of their underparts and it is all set off by the aforementioned black eye stripe that extends from the bill down to the shoulder. In flight they reveal one more distinctive marking, a series of white marks along the side of the tail that flash brightly on their typically short excursions from the trees. In my opinion, the Nuthatch would easily be a contender in any bird beauty competition.
Widespread British bird
The Nuthatch in Britain is a widespread bird in Wales and southern and central England and is becoming more common in northern England and southern Scotland, too. It is a bird that is doing well, increasing in number and range. Thanks to its habit of raiding bird tables and feeders, it is also a bird that is familiar to many people, be they birdwatchers or not. The Nuthatch has learnt that our gardens can be an important source of food in the autumn and winter period and they are increasingly regular visitors to them. Away from our gardens, the Nuthatch is a bird of primarily deciduous woodland, a habitat that provides plenty of invertebrates during the spring and summer and an abundance of nuts and seed in the autumn and winter. The bird’s diet mirrors this food availability. The dagger-like bill, that the bird so readily brandishes on its forays to our bird feeders, is perfectly adapted to their feeding habits. Its long, pointed shape is ideal for winkling out insects from deep within the crevices of an oak tree’s bark; it is also a useful tool for foraging on the woodland floor, flicking through the leaf litter hoping to uncover a meal. But it is the use that the bird puts it to in the autumn and winter which it is most famous for, indeed it even led to its name. Walking through a woodland in the autumn you will often hear a regular ‘tap, tap, tap’ coming from the trees around you. At first you may think it is a woodpecker, but the slower, regular tapping usually means that a Nuthatch is nearby. After prising out a hazelnut from its husk, the Nuthatch will fly with it to a nearby spot where it can jam the nut into a crevice or a crack. The bark of Oak trees is often well suited to this task, but I have watched Nuthatches use broken stumps and even the back of a Dormouse nestbox to wedge their bounty in. Once the nut is firmly lodged, the sharp, pointed
bill is used to cleave the shell open. This can often take several blows, which is why you will hear several taps in a row, but the hard nut shells are no match for this specialist tool. The nut is quite literally split open as if hit by a hatchet. The Nuthatch is exactly that. If you find one of these nut-splitting sites, they can be well worth staking out as many Nuthatches will return to favourite spots to split their nuts, giving you the opportunity to watch these beautiful birds up close, as well as giving you the chance to get some photos of the bird in action. If there is a good harvest of nuts available the bird will also cache the surplus, hiding them in cracks of trees or under broken bark. In periods of bad weather, or if the food supply suddenly ends, the birds return to their caches to feed. It has been demonstrated that they are able to remember the cache’s location for at least a month after they stored the food there, quite a feat for a small bird. Aside from its nut splitting activities, the Nuthatch is also well known for its ability to walk head first down the branches and trunks of trees, a habit which is unique among British birds.
Sometimes, when birding in woodland, it can be difficult to discern markings, but if you see a silhouette of a bird going head first down a tree it can only be a Nuthatch. Unlike the related Treecreeper, that uses its stiff tail feathers to brace itself against the tree as it climbs up the trunks, the Nuthatch relies on its long sharp claws and strong feet to cling to the trees as it scours them for more food. Watching a Nuthatch defy gravity as it walks on the underside of a sloping branch makes you appreciate just how strong their feet are! They are hole nesters and will readily take advantage of old woodpecker nests, plastering the hole with mud to reduce the diameter of the entrance to make it a more secure place in which to rear their brood. The mud can also be used to line the inside of the nest chamber and, if they use a nest box, to plug any joins. I once had a pair of Nuthatches take over a standard tit box. They used their bills to enlarge the entrance hole and then plastered the inside with mud, before encasing the outside top half of the box with it as well, meaning that the lid was well and truly welded on to the box! It certainly looked odd, but that didn’t worry the adult birds who successfully raised five young from within their muddied box. Nuthatches are real characters and it is great to see them doing so well in Britain at a time when many of our bird species are struggling. They may well be a bit boisterous in their behaviour when they come to feed in our gardens, and maybe their masked appearance does recall a certain sense of criminality, but these are great birds. So, stock up on your bird food, the bandits are coming!
Walking through a woodland in the autumn you will often hear a regular ‘tap, tap, tap’ coming from the trees around you, at first you may think it is a woodpecker, but the slower, regular tapping usually means that a Nuthatch is nearby
Nuthatches put themselves whole-heartedly into the task of hacking nuts!