National Geographic : 1934 May
WINGED DENIZENS OF WOODLAND, STREAM, AND MARSH ward on tree trunks, in this differing from all our other tree-climbing birds. The ordi nary call is a low yank yank like that of no other bird. In early spring it sings a pleas antly modulated, whistled song. Nuthatches eat insects, spiders, insect eggs, and similar fare. They are also par tial to starchy seeds and nuts, which they carry to some suitable crevice in a dead limb or the rough bark of a free, where they wedge them in securely. With re peated blows of the bill, delivered with the utmost force of which they are capable, they then split them open to get the food within. It is this habit that has given the group the common name of "nuthatch." THE NUTHATCH IS THRIFTY Nuthatches also store seeds and small nuts by wedging them in cracks and crev ices, so that they may preserve a supply for periods when food is less abundant. At my feeding shelf in a suburb of Washing ton, as at hundreds of others, the nut hatches work busily all day long carrying off sunflower seeds and hiding them under shingles and in the stucco walls of near-by houses, regardless of the fact that the sup ply is renewed daily. Probably most of this food is eaten by other birds, so that the labor of nuthatches goes for nothing except for the satisfaction of this instinct. In the West nuthatches feed extensively on the sweet-meated nuts of the pifion pine. In many regions they eat the meat of acorns, particularly of those kinds of small size. Hard-shelled nuts like the hazelnut are also eaten. Eight geographic forms of this nuthatch are recognized, ranging, wherever there is suitable tree growth, from British Colum bia, Alberta, and Quebec to Florida, south ern Mexico, and Baja California. Nuthatches are related to titmice and creepers, differing in their long, straight bills and short tails, which they do not use as braces in climbing, depending entirely upon their strong feet to cling to the sur faces over which they clamber. They are stocky, heavy-bodied little birds. About 60 kinds of nuthatches are known, representatives of the family being widely distributed except in South America and Central America and the central and south ern parts of Africa. Some of the tropical forms of the Old World are brightly colored. Most nuthatches nest in holes in trees, building warmly felted nests of feathers, hair, and soft vegetable materials in which they place their brown-spotted eggs. Some of the foreign species use mud to close the cavity except for the small entrance hole. The rock nuthatch, which ranges from Greece to Persia, carries this practice a step farther, as it makes a cone-shaped nest entirely of mud, placing it against a rock. The usual softly felted nest is built inside this structure. Red-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) The redbreast has the usual nuthatch customs of searching for food over the trunks of trees and also flies out to capture insects in the air, an infrequent habit in the other species. It is especially fond of the seeds of pines, and in the eastern United States it is found abundantly in those years when pines produce quantities of seeds (see Plate IV). The nest is excavated in some dead stub or limb, being sometimes 10 or 12 inches deep. Occasionally the birds will occupy bird boxes. They usually smear pitch about the entrance to the nest, a habit for which no explanation has been offered. The eggs number from four to eight and are white in color, spotted with reddish brown. The call of this species is high-pitched and nasal, suggestive in tone of the sound of a penny trumpet. In the vicinity of Washington the red-breasted nuthatch is always common when the Virginia pines produce an abundant crop of seed. The red-breasted nuthatch breeds from Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Alaska south in the mountains to North Carolina, Cali fornia, and New Mexico. In migration it reaches the Gulf coast and northern Florida. The red-breasted nuthatch has close rela tives in the Old World, which, in spite of their distant homes, are sometimes con sidered geographic races of the American bird rather than distinct species. One of them is found in the mountains of Corsica, and the other occurs in northern and north western China. Like our bird, both inhabit forests, usually of conifers, and, besides their similarity in color, they are said to resemble the American redbreast in habits and in notes. The relationship between the three is highly interesting, in view of the great distances that separate their ranges.