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Nuthatches Really Live Up To Their Names

Have you ever seen a bird hopping upside down on a tree? It’s probably a white-breasted nuthatch that you see!

Unlike most birds that perch with their heads up, nuthatches swoop to the trunk of the tree and land with their tails up and heads down. This isn’t the only thing that makes them stand out though.

At only about 5 inches to 6 inches long, and with their round bellies and short tails, nuthatches could fit in the palm of your hand. They have bluish-gray feathers down their backs and white bellies. Want to know if you’re looking at a male or a female? Check the head. Both wear a cap or crown of feathers that goes between their eyes, over the top of their heads and meets their back feathers. Males wear a black cap, while the females have lighter bluish-gray caps. Look at the pictures here or at nuthatches you see outside. Can you identify if you’re seeing a male or a female by looking at its cap?

Don’t let their cuddly size and shape fool you. These birds pack a mighty punch. The hint is in their name. The “hatch” in nuthatch is short for hatchet, an axe-like tool. Nuthatches use their long, sharp beaks to whack at the hard shells of nuts and seeds until they crack open to expose the yummy middles. So, this bird is named for its tool – its nut hatchet! Get it?


Words to know

Crevice: A narrow opening. Expose: To make something visible by uncovering it. Plentiful: Existing in great quantities.


Cracking shells isn’t the only thing their hatchet beak can do. It’s also excellent for hunting. When hopping down trees, nuthatches poke their beaks in and around the cracks and crevices of the bark, gobbling up insects hidden in the nooks and crannies. While scientists don’t know for certain why nuthatches move upside down, one idea is that this unique perspective helps them find insects hidden in different places than birds like woodpeckers and brown creepers, which move up the trees.

In the fall and winter, when insects are not as plentiful, nuthatches fill their bellies with seeds and nuts. They even visit bird feeders! Nuthatches plan ahead. They take seeds one at time. When hungry they will jam a seed in a gap of loose bark to hold it tight while they hatchet it open with their beaks.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

If they aren’t hungry, they will still take seeds and hide them for later. They even go so far as to cover them up with bark, lichen, moss or snow! Hiding these seeds and nuts while upside down may also help keep them hidden from the birds that are looking up instead of down for food. Nuthatches eat these hidden snacks later that same day or first thing in the morning to get a boost of energy to start the day.

White-breasted nuthatches are a pretty common sight in Illinois. They live here year-round in woodlands, parks and even neighborhoods with trees.

(Photo by Glenn P. Knoblock)

Want to spot a nuthatch? Try hanging a bird feeder or two in your yard. Fill with sunflower seeds, suet, peanuts, safflower seeds or mealworms — all tasty treats to a nuthatch. Bonus if you can hang feeders near a tree. That will provide a full buffet with fresh insects and a great spot for hiding snacks!


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