GRAND FORKS, N.D. — Old bones are cold bones, I’ve heard it said, and my old bones have been sticking pretty close to home. That’s why I don’t have a bird of my own to present this week. Instead, I decided to borrow one.
There were several candidates.
I heard reports of northern flickers, purple finches and golden eagles this week. Any of those would be a candidate.
But I took Dave Lambeth’s bird, the red-breasted nuthatch. Dave is the dean of local birders, and he’s the compiler of the Grand Forks Christmas Bird Count, which will be under way as you read this Sunday morning.
Lambeth virtually guarantees the presence of one desirable species, the red-breasted nuthatch. “This year I don’t think red-breasted nuthatch will be a problem,” he said.
And so, red-breasted nuthatch is bird of the week.
Relative rarity makes the red-breasted nuthatch a desirable species. Its close relative, the white-breasted nuthatch, is one of the area’s most dependable winter species.
Not so much.
The Grand Forks County bird list, which Lambeth had a big hand in compiling, rates the white-breasted nuthatch as common year ‘round. The red-breasted nuthatch it rates one step down, as “fairly common” fall and winter and rare in spring and summer. Robert E. Stewart, in “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” calls it “rare local and irregular.”
Appearance makes the red-breasted nuthatch desirable, too. It’s cute — cuter than its cousin.
While the white-breasted nuthatch is a duotone, the red-breasted nuthatch has at least three colors.
Plus a bolder pattern.
Both species are slate blue on the topside and both have black caps.
Except for the snow white breast (and an occasional soiling of the under tail) that’s it for the white-breasted nuthatch.
The red-breasted nuthatch has a boldly patterned face. In addition to the black crown stripe, the red-breasted nuthatch has a black stripe through the eye. This gives it a kind of masked appearance. This contributes to the cuteness factor. So does a short, sharply pointed bill that the bird habitually holds pointed ever so slightly upward.
Plus the red-breasted nuthatch has white on the throat and upper breast. The red, a rich chestnut color, covers most of the bottom side of the bird.
Both of the nuthatches are acrobats, capable of walking headfirst down a tree trench or hanging upside down from a branch.
The two species have different taste in trees, though. The white-breasted nuthatch likes deciduous trees, the ones that lose their leaves in the fall, the kind that are planted in city parks and along city streets, the kind that don’t provide much cover in the winter. Birds that prefer these trees are easier to see.
Red-breasted nuthatches prefer conifers, the kind of trees that hang onto their needles. Conifers provide dense cover, and birds that prefer conifers are harder to see. This is one reason that red-breasted nuthatches are seen less often than white-breasted nuthatches, even when both species are hanging around the same park or backyard.
So far, we’ve handled plumage, behavior and habitat. That leaves two other characteristics to consider in separating these birds.
One is size.
The red-breasted nuthatch is smaller than its cousin, and so it appears more delicate. Of course, this contributes to the cuteness quotient. The white-breasted nuthatch is more sturdily built, not clumsy, but durable.
The other ID clue to consider is sound. This can be decisive in considering nuthatches. The difference isn’t subtle, but it’s hard to describe. Having identified the sound that each makes, you’ll never confuse the species.
I sought expert help on this. The bird guides often suggest the red-breasted nuthatch’s call sounds like a tin horn, a kind of high-pitched nasal blast, often rendered “Yank! Yank!” and almost always repeated. The white-breasted nuthatch’s call is nasal, too, but lower in pitch. Rather more like “Yonk!” Sometimes, this is repeated, with the syllables all on the same pitch.
These are two of four nuthatch species resident to the United States. The others are brown-headed nuthatch of the southeastern states and pygmy nuthatch of the Mountain West.
Neither of these should be expected here.
There are roughly two dozen species of nuthatches in Europe and Asia. Southeast Asia is especially nuthatch rich, and ornithologists speculate this might be the ancestral home of the family. Two nuthatch species occur in extreme northern Africa. Otherwise, the southern continents are nuthatch free.