Ian Par­sons

The Nuthatch may be a ‘bird ta­ble ban­dit’ but its lovely looks and unique grav­ity-de­fy­ing qual­i­ties make it a very spe­cial bird in­deed

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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.

De­fy­ing grav­ity

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!

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