I find that the appeal of nuthatches lie in the fact that they do things a bit differently than most other birds: they hunt in the “wrong” direction. They scramble headfirst down a tree trunk with more grace and agility than a woodpecker hitches upwards.
Nuthatches don’t forage upside-down to be contrary, of course. They’ve just found a way to exploit resources that might be overlooked by woodpeckers, creepers, and other bark-gleaning species that use a more conventional approach. Of the two dozen plus species of nuthatches in the world, four are found in North America: White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown-headed Nuthatch, and Pygmy Nuthatch.
The topsy-turvy lifestyle isn’t the only thing that makes nuthatches engaging and unique. Brown-headed Nuthatches are known to use twigs to pry insects out of crevices; few of our other songbirds are known to use tools. Red-breasted Nuthatches use pine resin to spackle the edges of their nest holes, which is thought to help deter predators. White-breasted Nuthatches sometimes wipe blister beetles around their nest entrances for the same reason – these beetles exude an acidic substance. Clever!
Nuthatches aren’t creative vocalists. All have some variation of a nasal, two-noted, “yank-yank” call. Naturalist John Burroughs described the more muted courtship calls of the White-breasted Nuthatch “like the voice of children, plaintive but contented, a soft interrogation in the ear of the sylvan gods.” Lofty admiration for such modest birds.
As an ornithologist, I have seen and worked with many birds in my lifetime. Of all the exotic and interesting birds I’ve seen, the familiar nuthatches remain my favorites. They simply appeal to the determined, if not rugged, individualist in me.