BTO Garden Bird of the Month – November: Nuthatch

The agile nuthatch is spreading northwards and its use of gardens peaks at this time of year. 

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Nuthatch.
© Mark R Taylor/BTO

The agile nuthatch is spreading northwards and its use of gardens peaks at this time of year. 

The nuthatch is a bird full of character, a brash and often noisy interloper at garden feeding stations, whose unseemly behaviour has its origins in the need to find food.

More gardens are visited by nuthatches during November than in any other month as they are busy foraging during the short daylight hours. They can also be seen collecting and storing food for the winter ahead.

Recent years have seen the birds' numbers in gardens really pick up, not least in Scotland where feeding stations are giving the species a helping hand.

The long road north

Nuthatches have a patchy distribution across their predominantly southerly British range, displaying a clear preference for gardens located close to a suitable breeding habitat, namely deciduous or mixed woodland.

They are remarkably sedentary, rarely moving far from where they fledged, and so colonise new areas slowly.

Over recent years, however, BTO Garden BirdWatch data reveal that the species has spread into Scottish gardens, supported by the UK's warming climate and food provided by householders.

An examination of the historical literature shows that, up until the end of the 19th century at least, nuthatches bred on a regular basis no further north than Harrogate in Yorkshire.

The first few years of the 20th century saw an expansion of their breeding range into County Durham and also into West Wales, areas that had previously been unoccupied, but no real inroads were made into areas of apparently suitable habitat within the Scottish Borders.

A number of attempts were made to establish the species in Scotland, most notably by the Duke of Argyll at Inverary, but these appear to have been unsuccessful.

However, from the 1940s onwards, a range expansion did occur, with the nuthatch spreading into new areas in northern England. While this brought the species ever closer to Scotland it was not until 1989 that breeding was finally confirmed in the Scottish Borders.

© BTO

During the early stages of the BTO Garden BirdWatch survey, nuthatches were scarce visitors to Scottish gardens. Now, however, their numbers are really picking up, particularly in Southern Scotland. © Chris Bradley

A bird with attitude

The nuthatch has a well-deserved reputation for being intolerant of other nuthatches and, indeed, many other birds. They are territorial throughout the year, a pattern of behaviour rarely seen in small garden-visiting species.

The root cause of this antagonism tends to be food. For instance, a pair of nuthatches requires a minimum of about one hectare of good quality habitat in order to successfully raise a family.

Nuthatches often appear rather grumpy when visiting hanging feeders, striking out at other birds that attempt to join the party.

Intensive studies of breeding birds have revealed that some individuals may spend several hours each day involved in conflicts with neighbouring birds, despite the fact that such encounters only rarely result in a change in territory ownership or size.

Most of these interactions are restricted to posturing and calling behaviour, but they can sometimes escalate into full blown fights, in which birds grab at each other with their strong feet and stab with their long beaks. Injury and even death are not uncommon.

'Nut hacker'

One of the most obvious features of the nuthatch is its beak. Though it looks pretty formidable, it is not strong enough to drill into wood in the manner adopted by our woodpeckers. Instead it is used to remove pieces of bark, allowing the bird to reach invertebrates within any rotten wood beneath.

The name nuthatch derives from the Middle English word ‘nuthak’, which roughly translates as ‘nut hacker’. No doubt this refers to their habit of smashing open nuts after wedging them into a crevice.

To identify a nuthatch look out for steel grey upper parts and a rusty buff colour below. Males are dark red-brown around the flanks and vent. Nuthatches are small, about the size of great tits but have a profile similar to that of a woodpecker.

Attracting nuthatches to your garden

During autumn and winter, nuts, seeds and invertebrates form an important part of the diet of nuthatches. At garden feeding stations, peanuts and sunflower hearts are particularly popular.

Their habit of scouring tree trunks and branches for invertebrates means that suet smeared into bark can provide an energy-rich snack, and this might also attract great spotted woodpeckers and even treecreepers.

 

The British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) works in partnership with over 40,000 volunteer birdwatchers to chart the fortunes of UK birds.

Among the surveys that we coordinate is our popular Garden BirdWatch, the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world.

Each month we highlight a bird for you to look out for in your garden.

For more information about Garden BirdWatch or to speak to the Garden Ecology Team please email gbw@bto.org

 

Read previous BTO Garden Bird of the Month blogs.

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