Red-breasted nuthatches are fairly common in Calgary. When I walk on the sidewalks, I often hear their “yank, yank, yank” calls coming from within the many front-yard spruce trees. Two to four Red-breasted nuthatches visit the backyard feeders every day. But I only occasionally see the slightly larger White-breasted nuthatches. I’ve seen one twice at the black sunflower seed feeder and I’ve glimpsed a few dart up and down large trees in a handful of forested Calgary parks. This little cutie was tree trunk hopping in South Glenmore Park.
Why are nuthatches called nuthatches? They jam large seeds and nuts into tree bark before whacking them with their sharp bill to hatch out the seed from the inside.
What do they eat in the winter? Nuthatches mostly eat insects when the weather is warm enough but in the winter, they rely on seeds and nuts. They often cache seeds and nuts to eat later. One at a time, they store them under the loose bark of a tree, camouflaging their cache with a piece of bark, lichen, moss, or snow.
The sun was playing peek-a-boo that day. I noticed the White-breasted nuthatch, while I was waiting for the sun to pop back out and illuminate the orange lichen on the balsam poplar trunks.
Scientific name: Sitta carolinensis
French: Sitelle à poitrine blanche
Sitta is from the Ancient Greek word for nuthatch. Aristotle mentions nuthatches in his History of Animals. In French, the Eurasian nuthatch (Sitta europaea) is called “Sitelle torchepot”. Pot wiping nuthatch? “Pot” refers to the tree-hole nuthatches nest in. Eurasian nuthatches reduce the size of the entrance of their nesting holes with a mixture of mud and saliva. This plaster is called “torchis” in French. And the verb “torcher” means to wipe and it also means to apply a plaster of mud and other natural materials. North American nuthatches do not plaster the entrances of their nesting holes but they do wipe their bills on them. I don’t know why.
Archaic English words for nuthatch: nuthack, nutpecker, nutjobber.
A little about plastering and bill-wiping: