Mike Jacobs: Nuthatches best match mood of November

The list of birds associated with November runs to a dozen or more species, including eagles, swans, woodpeckers, northern owls and northern hawks, snow buntings, redpolls, siskins, juncos and so on.

Illustration by Mike Jacobs
Illustration by Mike Jacobs

The list of birds associated with November runs to a dozen or more species, including eagles, swans, woodpeckers, northern owls and northern hawks, snow buntings, redpolls, siskins, juncos and so on.

But to me, the nuthatches best match the mood of the month. Two species occur here. The white-breasted nuthatch is a year-round resident. The red-breasted nuthatch is mostly a winter visitor, and it often appears in early November.

The nuthatches are very similar in appearance and habit, but with notable differences.

One habit distinguishes the nuthatches from other birds. Both red- and white-breasted nuthatches are capable of moving headfirst down a tree and of hanging upside down on tree limbs.

Despite the names, the breast is not the best field mark to identify the nuthatch species. The pattern of the face is more reliable. Red-breasted nuthatches have prominent striping on the face, with a black cap and a band running from the base of the bill around the eye and across the cheek to the nape of the neck. White-breasted nuthatches have white faces, though the black eye is prominent.


There are other, subtler clues. White-breasted nuthatches are larger, about an inch longer from bill to tail tip and 2½ inches wider from wing tip to wing tip. Size is an unreliable field mark, especially with smaller birds, because human eyes usually rely on comparisons to make these judgments, and these aren't always available.

The names of these birds aren't perfectly descriptive, either. The breast - that is the forward part of the lower side of the bird - is often white in both species. The difference is on the belly. Red-breasted nuthatches do have red bellies; the color sometimes extends to the breast, and this can be a prominent feature of individual birds. White-breasted nuthatches have white bellies, but these sometimes are soiled, and that can lead to confusion or misidentification.

The calls of these two species are similar, too, both nasal "yank" sounds. These calls often are heard on quiet winter mornings. Although similar, these notes are distinguishable.

Differences in habits come into play here.

Although there are records of nesting in the Red River Valley, the red-breasted nuthatch almost exclusively is a winter bird in our area. The white-breasted nuthatch is common year-round, although it is more conspicuous in winter than in summer.

The two birds are found in different types of woodlands. White-breasted nuthatches forage among deciduous trees - the ones that drop their leaves in winter. Red-breasted nuthatches prefer conifers, especially spruce trees.

Spruce trees - indeed all conifers - are latecomers in our area; they've been planted. These patches of evergreens attract red-breasted nuthatches. While it's not absolutely reliable, this preference provides a strong clue to the identification of a nuthatch, whether seen or heard.

The nuthatches seem to have sorted themselves along habitat preferences. North America has two other species: the pygmy nuthatch and the brown-headed nuthatch. Both prefer pines, the brown-headed nuthatch in the southeastern states and the pygmy nuthatch in the western United States and the mountains of Mexico.


Worldwide, there are 27 species, the "Handbook of the Birds of the World" tells me.

The book confirms a distinguishing behavior that I'd seen. "In autumn, particularly, red-breasted nuthatches descend from the canopy to the ground in search of fallen seeds. Individuals accustomed to the presence of humans also enter gardens to take seeds from feeders."

That's what happened at our place west of Gilby, N.D., where the spruce trees were planted on Nov. 2, 1997. I remember planting them on North Dakota Statehood Day in the year of the flood. Those trees are mature and seed-bearing now and have drawn crossbills as well as nuthatches.

This year, I scattered sunflower seed on the driveway in early November, and red-breasted nuthatches came to the ground to feed.

Notable sightings

Red-breasted nuthatches are not the biggest news in the bird world this season; their appearance wasn't unexpected. Several sightings of scarlet tanagers were reported - well outside the usual season for these birds. The birds were young-of-the-year.

Young of most birds - waterfowl and some other species excepted - must find their own way in migration, and sometimes become confused, as the appearance of a thick-billed kingfisher at Cross Ranch State Park northwest of Bismarck attested to earlier this season.

The big news beyond our area is the discovery of a hybrid that is "three birds in one," according to the website Hybridization is fairly common among birds; Smithsonian says at least 10 percent of birds "have been caught swinging between species."


A "three-species" hybrid is extremely rare.

This affair took place in Pennsylvania, and the resulting bird was named Burket's warbler for the birder who discovered it.

TOM STROMME/TribuneMike Jacobs is the former editor of the Grand Forks Herald and writes a weekly column focusing on the 65th North Dakota Legislature assembly.
Mike Jacobs

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