This week, we got a fun new feathered visitor to the yard, a Red-Breasted Nuthatch. We regularly see White-Breasted Nuthatches, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen this type of nuthatch in the yard, or anywhere for that matter. In our area, they tend to be a bird occasionally seen in the woods up among the pines rather than at the backyard feeder, but I’m hearing that this year there is an irruption of Red-Breasted Nuthatches.
Irruption years seem to happen when these nuthatches can’t find the seeds they need in the conifers in their usual winter territories, so they move farther south to see what they can find. (The American Birding Association reports that Pine Siskins and Purple Finches may be irrupting this year as well, for the same reason, a poor pine cone year in the north.)
Having heard that this was an irruption year, I had been watching for these active little birds. This particular little guy showed up earlier this week way up at the top of one of the pines. I lost track of him for quite a while, but I could still hear the nasal “yank, yank” of his call every now and then. Later in the day he turned up at one of the Squirrel Buster Plus feeders to get sunflower seed.
The next morning I sat out on the back step and watched him go back and forth from the sunflower seed to the top of a pine at the back of the yard for a solid half hour. He was very efficient about it; I found I could consistently count to thirteen from the time he left the feeder and returned. Over and over again. Seeing the pattern, I was able to point and focus my camera at the feeder to anticipate when he would arrive to get a picture. If you do the math, it seems that he cached away at least 120 sunflower seed hearts in just that short period of time!
Every now and then over the course of the morning, he would pause and take one of the seeds up the trunk of the sycamore tree that the feeder hangs from and eat it. Then he would go right back to his rounds from the feeder to the pine. I couldn’t get a good look at what he was doing in the pine, but it almost seemed like he was caching the sunflower hearts inside the pine cones at the top of the tree. If that is his strategy, he is likely to be disappointed, as the local American Goldfinches spend a lot of time poking around in the pine cones up there. Of course, he could also have been grabbing seeds from the pine cones too, but in that case, what did he do with it? So it looked like he was caching seeds there.
We regularly see two White-Breasted Nuthatches in the yard and I was curious whether they would have any conflicts with this new Red-Breasted Nuthatch being in their territory. While I never saw them side by side or taking seed from the same feeder at the same time, all three birds were active in the yard at the same time and I never saw any conflict.
I do find it interesting how often territorial fighting between birds is within the same species rather than between species. In some cases, different species have carved out different niches so they don’t need to fight. And others, the less dominate bird species simply give way when a more aggressive bird appears. Whether these two species of nuthatches see themselves as similar in the way we do is something I just can’t say.
The season can also make a difference with some birds. For example, the local Northern Cardinals seem to get along very well through the non-breeding times of year; I’ve seen as many as twenty-two in my yard eating together at my feeders in the winter, but come spring, the males spend many hours chasing each other around. I don’t think you can get a real feel for a bird until you have observed it over every season and even then, I doubt we humans will ever completely understand them. It’s fun to try though!
To learn more about Red-Breasted Nuthatches, check out:
Have you seen Red-Breasted Nuthatches in your yard?