Nuthatch: the upside-down bird that moves like a wind-up toy and can handle all the cold

Temperatures in the Calgary area this week are cold. Really cold. Humans are struggling to stay warm and get from A to B. Could we learn a thing or two from some feathered friends?

We are talking about nuthatches. 

“Remember, these are the birds that move differently from other birds, scaling the trunks of nearby trees up, down and sideways with the erratic motion of a wind-up toy,” Calgary naturalist Brian Keating told The Homestretch Wednesday.

They come in red and white, as in red-breasted and white-breasted.

“Both are year-round residents, and get their name from their habit of taking seeds, jamming them in a bark crevice and hacking out the nut inside with their sharp beaks.”

Keating says both types of nuthatches have been hanging out in his garden for the past week because he has suet and sunflower feeders.

These songbirds have virtually no neck, long bills and short tails. They often travel with chickadees, kinglets and woodpeckers, but nuthatches generally stick to tree trunks and branches. They weigh about 10 grams, or roughly the weight of two quarters.

Staying warm

“They eat high-energy food,” Keating explains.

Red-breasted nuthatches extract seeds from cones for winter energy, which allows them to winter further north than their white-breasted friends, which rely on insects, insect eggs and digging under bark.

There are 4 types of nuthatches that live in Canada, with about 30 in countries around the world. (Brian Keating)

Upside down

While many birds, like woodpeckers and creepers, work their way up a tree, nuthatches position themselves upside-down.

“They have a greatly enlarged hind toe and stubby tail, both adaptations for climbing downwards because a floppy tail gets in the way. Nuthatches don’t use their tails like woodpeckers do,” Keating said.

Nuthatches also store food to eat at a later time, which allows for a steady supply throughout the winter, he added.

The red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches are just two of four species that live in Canada, while there are 30 types around the world.

For more fascinating stories about Alberta’s wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:

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