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Nuthatches are upside-down birds

Mae Norton Morris, a poet, probably wrote it best when she described her encounter with a nuthatch:

"I saw a nuthatch on a tree

Going round and round.

It made me dizzy just to see

Him walking upside down!"

"I s'pose he was so busy there

Finding bugs to eat,

That he was thinking of his mouth,

And quite forgot his feet!"

Indeed, nuthatches, what interesting birds they are! Here in our region we are lucky to have two species to observe: the white-breasted nuthatch and the red-breasted nuthatch. And though similar to woodpeckers and brown creepers in both behavior and appearance, nuthatches belong to an entirely different family, Sittidae. All nuthatches are stocky birds with large heads, short tails, and short legs.

Two other species of nuthatches inhabit other regions of the United States. The brown-headed nuthatch makes its home in the coniferous forests of the Deep South, Florida and parts of the East Coast, while the pygmy nuthatch inhabits the pines of the Rocky Mountains and into Mexico.

Of the nuthatches, the white-breasted is the most widespread of all. They range extensively across most of the United States as well as much of southern Canada and parts of Mexico. Both species that reside here in Minnesota, the white-breasted and red-breasted, are year-round residents.

One of the many interesting behaviors characteristic of all nuthatches is their habit of clinging upside down on tree trunks. Though other birds are nearly as acrobatic, like chickadees, woodpeckers and brown creepers, only nuthatches inch their way down a tree headfirst in their search for food.

Nuthatches are capable of such gravity-defying climbing stunts because of special claws. Large claws on their hind toes enable these stout little birds to securely grip the bark of tree trunks and limbs as they climb about. Squirrels approach their descents in similar fashion, whereas woodpeckers and brown creepers climb trees by working their way upward.

And there's more. Nuthatches have exceptional memories. These little birds are experts at remembering where they cache their seeds and foodstuffs. The next time you watch your birdfeeder, take note what happens when a nuthatch arrives. Like chickadees, they don't stay long for you to observe them. In the case of sunflower seeds, a white-breasted nuthatch will extract several sunflower seeds from the feeder before making off with one.

As impossible as it seems, what these birds are doing is literally weighing the seeds (other birds do this too). Much like we mentally weigh a fruit or vegetable at the supermarket by hefting it in our hand before deciding on its purchase, nuthatches are testing the weight of individual seeds to find out if what's inside is worth their time and energy. They do this quickly of course, rejecting seeds and dropping them to the ground below. Then, finding a suitable seed, they fly away with it.

What the birds do next with the seed depends on its hunger. If its mission is to save it for later consumption, the nuthatch will stuff the seeds into crevices of trees or under bark, and will return to the birdfeeder over and over again to do the same thing. And if they are hungry you will discover how the nuthatch got its namesake.

When a nuthatch wants to break open a seed's shell, it will wedge the seed into the bark or crevice of a limb or tree trunk and repeatedly "hack" away at the seed's shell with its bill until it can extract the prize inside. Perhaps "nuthack" would be a more appropriate and understandable name.

As well, if the bird is intent on hiding their seeds, a nuthatch will recall its hiding places with ease. During severe winter weather it's vital for animals like nuthatches, chickadees, squirrels, foxes and others to be able to cache foods when times are lean. Nuthatches hide seeds all day long and are able to locate a vast majority of their hidden meals when necessary.

So designed are nuthatches bodies for an upside down lifestyle, that the birds appear ill equipped for upright mobility.

Indeed, seeing an upright perching nuthatch is rare, they are much more comfortable clinging upside down underneath a limb or suet feeder than they are at other angles.

To be able to look outdoors and watch two species of these specialized birds inching their way down a tree headfirst and sometimes vocalizing their "yank, yank, yank" nasal-sounding calls, is pleasing to the eyes and ears. And what's more, we can do this all year long as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.


Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at