There are four species of North American nuthatches. The largest of these nuthatches is the white-breasted nuthatch. Averaging 5.75 inches long, however, it is still a relatively small bird.
The white-breasted nuthatch has a white face, dark cap on the head, gray-blue back and wings, a white breast and a long, narrow bill. This nuthatch can be seen throughout New Mexico. It prefers deciduous wooded habitat but can be found in conifer forests, parks, urban and suburban backyards. Its natural diet consists of insects, larvae, seeds, nuts and spiders. It is a common visitor to backyard bird feeders, preferring black-oil sunflower seeds, shelled nuts, suet and bark butter.
The White-breasted Nuthatch may be small, but it has a loud voice. Its loud nasal yawing often gives its presence away. Another identifying characteristic of this nuthatch is the unique way it searches for food. The white-breasted nuthatch probes tree trunks by climbing headfirst down the trunk. It will start at the top of a tree, working its way down. A common nickname for this nuthatch is the “upside down bird.” It gets its nuthatch name from jamming large nuts such as acorns and other seeds into tree bark then whacking them out with their sharp bill to “hatch” out the seed from the inside.
This nuthatch is a year-round resident, and male and female pairs will sometimes stay together even when not nesting. During winter months, nuthatches often join foraging flocks of other birds, such as chickadees and titmice. Joining other birds may make finding food easier, and there are more birds to watch for predators – safety in numbers! In spring, a mated pair will use existing tree cavities to build a nest. The female builds the nest using fur, dirt, bark and grasses.
They have one brood of young and often will reuse the same nest cavity the following spring. They are dependent upon having dead or partly dead trees in their habitat for nesting. Too much pruning can reduce nesting opportunities. Nuthatches will use man-made nesting boxes.
These active, agile nuthatches are common and widespread throughout our state. When hiking, walking or just relaxing in your backyard, listen for the white-breasted nuthatch’s distinctive “yank-yank, yank-yank” and search for movement on tree trunks and branches to get a glimpse of the upside down bird.
Mary Schmauss is the owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque and author of “For the Birds: A Month-by-Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard.”