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GUEST COLUMN: Strange nuthatch behavior

Stanley Tate

Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors and is a former Chieftains Museum board member. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers.

Cousin Kenny from Booger Holler has started something. Last week Ralph from Roopville called and said: I have discovered a pair of white-breasted nuthatches nesting in my birdhouse. Yesterday I noticed the male had something wrong with his beak. He was constantly scraping it across the top of the birdhouse as if there was something on it, like somebody trying to scrape a hunk of gum off the sole of a shoe. Today he was doing it again. I’m worried that he needs help getting that gum, pine resin, or whatever off his beak. Is there something wrong?

Good question, Ralph. Don’t worry. Nothing is wrong.

Be glad that you have nuthatches nesting in your backyard. They are one of the most entertaining, cavity-nesting birds around. Some cavity-nesters, the chickadee for example, barely let their presence be known. I love chickadees but they are boring nesters. They don’t hang around outside their nest cavity but instead fly directly into it. Some years you won’t realize that a birdhouse has been used until you open it in the fall and find an old nest and an unpaid cable bill.

White-breasted nuthatches are showboat tenants. They are constantly crawling all over the outside of the nest box. Instead of zipping into the hole in full flight chickadee-style they act as if they can’t remember where the entrance hole is. They often land on the attached tree and work their way down to the box and eventually into the nest. Chickadees are quiet around their nest but nuthatches won’t shut up. Their “yank, yank, yank” call is constant. Even when they are alone they never stop muttering.

One of the white-breasted nuthatch’s stranger habits is called “bill sweeping.” Either of the pair, sometimes both, will sweep its beak back and forth around the nest, particularly around the entrance hole. The bird will often have a crushed insect or piece of animal fur in its beak when it sweeps. Eggheads with clipboards have been studying this behavior for years. So far the best explanation they can come up with is that rubbing dead insects and bits of fur around the entrance hole leaves odors that somehow mask the bird’s own scent and thereby protects the nest from nuthatch-sniffing predators.

I guess that’s possible but the last time I checked, insects and small furry animals were pretty high on most predator menus. Why would those smells keep a predator away? The explanation for bill sweeping may be as simple as that the bird has a funky tune stuck in its head and wants to finish grooving before it settles onto the nest. Or, in the case of a male bird, he could have a little something “on the side” and he is merely wiping off the incriminating ruby-red beak gloss before his old lady catches him.

Whether bill sweeping is understood or not, nuthatches are fun to have around. It is hard to beat the sight of a column of four birds — one adult and three chicks — working its way head first down a tree trunk to a suet feeder, where one after the other, each chick is fed by the adult. The ability to do this separates the nuthatch from the pack. Cardinals, chickadees, robins, and you-name-the-bird can’t walk head first down a tree. Even woodpeckers, the most tree dependent birds of all, can’t do it. Birds typically keep their feet together making head-down balance difficult. But nuthatches spread their feet apart, front to back, like California surfer dudes. This gives them great head-down balance.

Your birds aren’t in trouble, Ralph. They are performing a ritual that all white-breasted nuthatches do at their nest sites. In a few weeks, if all goes well, you may be seeing young nuthatches, too. However, that all could change quickly if your male bird gets caught with ruby-red beak gloss on his face. Then instead of seeing him walking down a tree with nuthatch babies in tow, you could see him standing before Judge Judy. Good luck to him.

Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers. Readers may write him at henryt@bellsouth.net.