Nuthatches visit feeders, and for most of the year – and some years, ALL year – we must make due with only white-breasted nuthatches. It is the only one of North America’s four nuthatches that is resident in Central Ohio.
But another nuthatch does occur in Ohio, the tiny red-breasted nuthatch. This northerner is a rare localized nester in the Hocking Hills, Mohican State Forest and scattered areas in extreme northeast Ohio. But most breed in the vast boreal forest that blankets the northernmost U.S. and much of Canada.
However, these tough little birds do pay us wintertime visits, at least some years. Red-breasted nuthatches are intimately associated with the coniferous trees that make up much of the boreal forest. In warm seasons, they glean plenty of insects, especially beetles, caterpillars, and spiders.
Come the long, cold northern winter, easily obtained insect bounty largely vanishes. Then, the nuthatches switch to a diet heavy in conifer seeds, particularly those of fir and spruce.
Roughly every other winter, the nuthatches stage major southward incursions, with some birds even reaching the Gulf Coast and Mexico. Snowbirds seeking a Floridian vacation? Not hardly. Elfin 10 gram red-breasted nuthatches are tough as nails.
In the accompanying photo, a red-breasted nuthatch perches on the end of my camera lens. They are not shrinking violets, although the seed I put atop the lens helped draw them in. I was standing in a forest in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, and the temperature was about 5 below zero F.
It isn’t cold that drives the nuthatches south, it’s the lack of food. The conifer seeds that are their wintertime staple are cyclical, with big crops every two-three years. Alternate years are relative busts with few seeds produced.
As long as food is plentiful, red-breasted nuthatches ride out winter in the north woods. One or two evenings during my January 2018 Algonquin foray, it dipped to 20 below zero. The nuthatches were unfazed.
Southward incursions of boreal birds are known as irruptions, and birders down this way eagerly anticipate them. I began to hear occasional red-breasted nuthatches in August. By October’s end they were everywhere, statewide and far beyond, and were visiting my feeders along with the local white-breasted nuthatches.
If the pattern holds, it might be winter 2022-23 or 2023-24 before we again see many red-breasted nuthatches.
This isn’t the only boreal irruptive species. Pine siskin – a close relative of the American goldfinch – is another. Siskins are also appearing in large numbers. Watch for small brownish heavily streaked birds with a yellowish wash in the wings and tail. Siskins often travel in flocks, sometimes sizeable. Groups up to 200 have been recorded in year’s past. Anyone entertaining such numbers had better increase their thistle seed budget.
Far rarer irruptives include common redpoll, evening grosbeak, red crossbill, and white-winged crossbill. If any of these appear at your place, give me a shout, please.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.