February 22, 2022 | Myrna Pearman, Chin Ridge Seeds (en-CA)
This article is part of our "Ask Myrna" Backyard Bird Feeding Series.
February, despite the lengthening hours of daylight and being the shortest month of the year, is still locked in the full clutches of Old Man Winter. It can be long and dreary, so Valentines’ Day is the bright spot of the month for many Canadians.
February can also be a challenging month for our wild neighbours, each day a life-and-death struggle against the elements. But for one of our common backyard species, the White-breasted Nuthatch, mid-winter is also a time for love!
White-breasted Nuthatches—so named for their habitat of “hacking” their food open—remain pair-bonded throughout the year and engage in their own Valentine rituals during the winter months. Pairs keep in touch with each other using a wide vocal repertoire of 13 distinct calls. Both sexes issue calls, most of which are a variation of the characteristic nasal “yank yank.” Only the males sing courtship and territorial songs.
Nuthaches spend their days both caching and hunting for food morsels in the nooks and crannies of tree trunks and branches. They have the distinct habit of working their way from the top to the bottom of a tree trunk, headfirst. Interestingly, because they rely on memory to find cached food items, the hippocampus section of their brains is unusually large.
Unlike most bird species, whose hearing is most acute in the spring, nuthatch hearing is most acute in fall and winter. It is believed that this acuity helps paired birds communicate, enables them to locate invertebrates hidden under tree bark, and perhaps even helps them hear the wings of predators—a useful attribute for a species that feeds with its head down.
Despite being pair-bonded throughout the year and courting each other in the winter, recent research shows that there can be some skullduggery between the sexes. Apparently, male nuthatches have been known to watch where their mates cache food, then fly to the location and pilfer it. Females have grown wise to this trickery, as they have learned to wait at a feeding station until after the male has left with his own cache, then zip off with their morsel in the opposite direction!
Encourage nuthatches into your yard by offering them suet, shelled, and unshelled sunflower seeds, and shelled and unshelled peanuts. For an ideal mix, try Mother Nature's Chickadee Nuthatch blend. Add some enjoyment to your February by watching and listening to the Valentine overtures of these interesting wild neighbours.