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Blane Klemek column: Inside the nuthatch's upside-down world

Last week's column about red-bellied woodpeckers created a lot of birder buzz. I received no fewer than eight e-mails from readers reporting their personal observations of this fascinating species of woodpecker occupying their respective backyard feeding stations. In two such cases, readers reported seeing "red bellies" throughout the year.

Such observations, especially observing this species of woodpecker the entire year, lends credence to the possibility that red-bellied woodpeckers, at least some, might be nesting in northwestern Minnesota.

I've no proof one way or the other, but it certainly is possible that a small breeding population of these interesting woodpeckers could exist in our neck of the woods. In any event, I'd like to know. If anyone has ever observed a pair of nesting red-bellied woodpeckers, or have seen fledglings, please give me a shout sometime.

Without a sliver of doubt, woodpeckers and woodpecker-like birds are fascinating birds. Their gravity-defying special adaptations that enable them to cascade up and down tree trunks and limbs -- both vertically and horizontally -- are a joy to have around and observe. Thankfully, most species are easily attracted to our feeders.

Indeed, as I sit here and write these words, I'm enjoying the sight of a white-breasted nuthatch outside my window feeding contentedly (upside down, mind you) beneath a hanging suet feeder. I laugh when I think of it, but the birds resemble topsy-turvy little penguins.

Lucky we are that here in northern Minnesota two species of nuthatches can be seen: the white-breasted nuthatch and the red-breasted nuthatch. Although similar to woodpeckers and brown creepers in both behavior and appearance, nuthatches belong to an entirely different avian family that are characterized as stocky birds with large heads, short tails and short legs.

In all, there are four species of nuthatches occurring in North America. The other two species are the brown-headed nuthatch, which makes its home in the coniferous forests of the deep South, Florida and parts of the East Coast, and the pygmy nuthatch that inhabits the Rocky Mountain pine forests as well as parts of Mexico.

But of the four species of nuthatches, only the white-breasted is widespread. It ranges extensively across most of the United States as well as much of southern Canada and into Mexico. And of the two species that reside here in Minnesota, each of them, white-breasted and red-breasted nuthatches, are year-round residents.

As I've already mentioned, 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 trees headfirst as they search for food.

Nuthatches are capable of these climbing stunts because of special claws on their toes. 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 bird feeder, take note what happens when a nuthatch arrives. Like chickadees, nuthatches don't stay long for you to observe them. In the case of sunflower seeds, a white-breasted nuthatch will extract and toss aside several sunflower seeds from the feeder before making off with one.

As impossible as it seems, what these birds are doing is literally 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 for feeding or caching.

What the bird does 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 bird feeder over and over again to do the same thing. And if it is 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.

If the bird is intent on hiding the 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 hoard food items 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 upside-down lifestyles that the birds appear ill-equipped for upright mobility. Indeed, seeing a vertical or perching nuthatch is rare -- they are much more comfortable clinging upside-down underneath a limb or suet feeder than they are at practically any other angle.

To look outside at either of our two species of nuthatches, maybe both at the same time, and watch these specialized birds inch their way down a tree headfirst and sometimes vocalize their "yank-yank-yank" nasal-sounding calls, is as pleasing to the eyes and ears as it gets. And what's more, we can do so at any time of the year as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Happy New Year to you and yours.

Blane Klemek is a wildlife manager with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He can be reached at