By James Duncan
Learning and Engagement Officer
The super smart looking Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) is a true gymnast of the bird world. Its scuttling habits give it the appearance of a colourful Woodpecker, though it isn't related and is actually rather small, equalling a Great Tit in size. Though they can be rather elusive it's often the strident voice that announces their presence, a voice that undoubtedly belies their diminutive size. The Nuthatch is endowed with a varied repertoire of forceful, repetitive vocalisations that you may hear ringing across a woodland canopy. One of the most common is an explosive, popping "chwit-chwit", though they're by far and away the most vocal in late winter and early spring, prior to the commencement of breeding. Another thing that often draws attention to them is their supreme mastery of the arboreal world. No traverse too difficult, no angle too demanding, the energetic mobility of the Nuthatch is truly outstanding and it'll cling effortlessly to any branch or trunk - it's more than likely you'll observe one climbing upside down and, uniquely to its family, descending a tree head first. Exceptionally powerful legs, feet and claws enable a level of balance that unlike other bark-dwelling specialists doesn't necessitate the use of stiff tail feathers for support.
Very little about the characterful Nuthatch is subtle, neither the song, typical calls or the bold look and dagger-like beak. Its extensive black eye-stripe has it looking rather like a 'masked bandit', a comparison it lives up to when visiting a garden feeding station, when many other birds give it a wide berth. The naming of the Nuthatch is thought to stem from an old English corruption of the world 'nuthak', relating to its tendency to wedge large nuts such as beechmast, hazelnuts, acorns and chestnuts into a suitable crevice, 'hacking' away at them with its chisel-like beak to split them open and access the kernels. Whilst the lengthy beak appears mighty formidable, it isn't actually strong enough to drill into wood in the manner of a woodpecker. Having said that, it's enough of a deterrent to make the brash, easily antagonised Nuthatch dominant at the bird table - until a Great-spotted Woodpecker turns up, a Nuthatch will really stand its ground. It's this recent propensity for exploiting garden resources that has no doubt helped it to become a markedly more familiar bird across Britain, even though it's natural habitat is typically older, broad-leaved woodland.
When a Nuthatch isn't busy hammering away at a favoured autumn seed it'll feast on invertebrates, the staple food-source for the young. However, the Nuthatch is a closet hoarder and frequently stashes seeds for leaner times. Its distinctly intolerant nature may well correspond with the amount of stashed food in a given territory; the more that's been hidden, the more aggressive an individual may be. Not only are they secretive they also display superb craftsmanship. Should a cavity within a decaying tree be a suitable size for nesting, it won't stop the birds from further cementing the entrance hole - they just can't resist putting their own muddy stamp upon a nest site, though the additional fortifications will prevent them from being usurped by Starlings. The Nuthatch is also one of just a few birds in Britain with an overwhelmingly sedentary nature - most will disperse just a short distance from where they hatched, furthering the need to vigorously defend their home turf. This lack of population mobility makes the Nuthatch slow to colonise new areas, explaining its absence in Ireland, even though our British birds (S.europaea caesia) are one of over twenty sub-species found across temperate Eurasia. Formerly a bird of the South it's only in the last half-century the gradual move northwards has commenced, with breeding birds finally making it across the border into Scotland.
Nuthatch © Neil Fletcher