Tough love pays off for young nuthatches

If we let them, grackles take over our bird feeders in summer. So when the weather warms up, the regular feeders come down and are replaced with several that have cages built around them. Larger birds like grackles and hairy woodpeckers have to dine elsewhere, but smaller birds have no problem hopping between the bars. My favorites are red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis), natives of northern forests, although they’re spreading into urban neighborhoods like ours where there are mature evergreens. The little birds have a tinny, high-pitched call like the toot of a child’s tin horn. They have bluish-gray backs and rusty red breasts and are usually spotted working their way down tree trunks in search of insects hiding under the bark. The birds pair up during the winter and stay together for years. Like woodpeckers, the nuthatches excavate a nesting hole in the deadwood of a tree. Our yard has lots of faltering spruces, which is probably why we see so many nuthatches. The female lays up to half a dozen eggs in late spring, which hatch in about three weeks. The baby birds are helpless when they’re born and stay in the nest for another three weeks. After that they fledge and for several additional weeks, the adult birds teach their little ones survival skills. I’ve seen several of these lessons in progress this week. Sitting in our kitchen’s window seat I noticed a male nuthatch land on one of the caged feeders and work its way to the tube inside. It was immediately joined by a female and two young birds. The youngsters immediately started to flutter their wings and beg for food, but the adults ignored them. Instead they perched head down on the tube and started to peck at some of the peanuts in the tube, working to free them from the mesh. One of the young birds immediately got the idea and started to work on a peanut. The other continued to beg and was ignored. Pretty soon it joined the rest of the family gobbling nuts. The show went on for over an hour with the parent birds moving from feeder to feeder, I guess showing the little ones the different kinds of feed. At each stop the parents clung to the side of the feeder, head down the way they’d search trees for food, and demonstrated the proper technique to get the food on offer. The adults were stern. The sparrows and cardinals that bring offspring to the feeder end up stuffing seed in the mouths of their little beggars. The nuthatches, however, made the little ones feed themselves. They were still working on the lesson three days later. The thorough instruction may be one of the reasons red-breasted nuthatches have increased in numbers recently. Our bird feeders aren’t the safest place for the little birds to eat. Predators are well aware that the birds they hunt congregate at feeders, so the little ones are also learning to hunt in the trees. That’s one of the reasons we keep the faltering spruces going as long as we safely can — they provide cover for many birds as well as food and nesting locations. We’re rewarded with glimpses into their daily lives and sometimes introductions to a new generation.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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