Wild Profile: Meet the white-breasted nuthatch

A white-breasted nuthatch perched on a branch By yvontrep/Shutterstock

While it’s not as colourful as its cousin (the red-breasted nuthatch), the white-breasted nuthatch is just as clever and acrobatic. The bluish-grey and white bird is our largest nuthatch—though still no bigger than a sparrow—with a bulbous head, no neck, and a sharp beak that curves upwards.

Winter is one of the best times of the year to spot the white-breasted nuthatch, either at your feeder (try attracting them with suet or peanut butter) or scaling trees moving up, down, or sidebars, in a trademark jerky motion. You’ll also spot why they earned their name: all nuthatches are known for shoving nuts and seeds into a tree bark crevice, then “hatching” them open by smashing them with their bills. So smart!

Along with caching food, white-breasted nuthatches use a specific foraging strategy to nourish themselves through the winter: they’ll join mixed flocks of other non-migratory birds—chickadees and titmice—and hunt for food as part of a larger group. It’s possible this strategy offers protection from predators and makes it more likely for an individual white-breast to find food. (Many hands—er, eyes—make light work.)

That said, in winter, it’s still every bird for itself: a white-breasted nuthatch isn’t above knocking another aside to get feeder food. If you watch yours carefully, you might spot a male pushing nearby females out of the way. Rude! Nuthatches will also steal from each others’ food hiding spots; this is why, once a bird has gathered a morsel, it will first fly in the opposite direction of where it intends to cache the food, hoping to throw spying nuthatches off the trail.

Recent research suggests that the white-breasted nuthatch is an “irruptive” species, and will migrate—or not—based on food availability in winter. This is big news in the avian world. For a long time, ornithologists believed that red-breasted nuthatches exhibited this behaviour but other nuthatch family members didn’t.

These are the best places to go winter birding in Ontario.

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