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‘Little Devil Down’ Bird: the Acrobatic Nuthatch

Updated on September 23, 2013
White Breasted Nuthatch on its way down the tree looking for insects.
White Breasted Nuthatch on its way down the tree looking for insects. | Source

Well, this little guy isn't really a devil. It earned this name from the way it travels head first from the top to the bottom of a tree trunk. Bugs are its main agenda, particularly in the summertime. All manner of insects, including gypsy moths, their caterpillars, pine borers, beetles, spiders, etc., are gleaned by this very efficient tree bark groomer.

In the winter when insects are scarcer, nuthatches absolutely love to eat peanut butter, peanuts, suet and sunflower seeds. I have seen them tuck the seeds under tree bark using the bark as a vise, and then proceed to peck away until they get to the meaty interior. Nuthatches work diligently at all the trees and branches looking for overwintering bugs as well. I watched in awe as a nuthatch used a piece of bark to force another piece of bark away in order to expose a possible meal. Adaptability is definitely one of their strong suits!

Did You Know?

The 6" sparrow-sized White Breasted Nuthatch only migrates vertically; that is north to south and back again. And then only just far enough to follow insect populations.

Fortunately for us, the white breasted nuthatch likes big families, usually averaging about 6 to 8 per clutch and sometimes more. Their eggs are white with reddish-brown irregular lines. As a precautionary measure, female nuthatches use noxious smelling beetles and other insects to ‘dust’ their nests before laying eggs. This action presumably repels egg thieves like squirrels and raccoons. It is also thought that it acts as a natural pest repellent against lice, fleas and parasites that sometimes plague baby birds. Smart little birds aren’t they!

Nuthatches excavate nesting holes in trees, or use natural cavities for their homes. Alternatively, if those accommodations are not available, they will use nest boxes or bird houses. Nests are made with twigs and grass, and lined with feathers.

White-Breasted Nuthatch on Peanut Butter Log

White-Breasted Nuthatch.  Nuthatches blend in very well with their wintry backgrounds.
White-Breasted Nuthatch. Nuthatches blend in very well with their wintry backgrounds. | Source

Nuthatches Are Dapper Dressers!

White Breasted Nuthatches are handsome birds, and I think they know it! Any time I want to take a picture of them, these 6" feathered acrobats seem to stop what they are doing and hold their head at a cocky angle so I can obtain a good shot!

With their dark bluish-grey back and wings, black head and white chest, they are built to blend in while on a tree or against a snowy background. Their long pointed beak is just right for the tasks at hand.

Top 5 Pine Trees to Plant, from bhg

Best Way to Entice Nuthatches to Your Yard

Also known as the ‘upside-down’ bird, its talons are sharp so it can hang comfortably in almost any position. In fact, when it lands on the feeder, it invariably does so in an upside-down position. If you would like to lure them to your yard, your best bet is to

  1. Slather peanut butter onto pine cones and hang them from tree limbs.
  2. In the wintertime, peanut suet is another great enticement for nuthatches.
  3. Planting evergreen trees is another sure way to tempt nuthatches to visit your backyard.

They will be drawn to the rough bark, where lots of bugs like to hide. Birds that work their way up a tree can easily miss little critters tucked under the bark. Nuthatches find what other birds have missed!

This video, from bhg (Better Homes & Gardens), tells about the Top 5 Pine Trees to plant, particularly in northern climates where white-breasted nuthatches thrive in wintertime.

Foods Nuthatches Love

Favorite Bird Feeder Foods
Favorite Foods from Nature
Black Oil Sunflower Seeds
Insects Found Under Tree Bark
Peanuts and Peanut Butter
Pine Cone Seeds
Tree Nuts
Nuthatches LOVE Peanut Butter!
Nuthatches LOVE Peanut Butter! | Source

Two Other Nuthatches

Pygmy Nuthatch is only 4.25 inches, loves Ponderosa, Douglas fir and Monterey pine trees, and lives in the southern and north-western part of the U.S. and northward into Canada. Its high-pitched 'peep-peep' can sometimes escalate into an excited chatter. The Pygmy Nuthatch has a grey-brown head and a dark grey back, with a small white spot at the back of the neck. Look for them in small flocks.

Brown-Headed Nuthatch comes in at 4.5 inches and is somewhat uncommon. They prefer the pine woods of the southern U.S. Similar in appearance to the Pygmy Nuthatch, but its head is brown rather than grey-brown. You might think there's a squeaky toy in the trees, but it's a Brown-Headed Nuthatch!

Listen for its distinctive nasal ‘yank-yank’ call. The nuthatch’s song sounds like whistled notes strung together. It likes to pal around with chickadees, woodpeckers, juncos and kinglets year round.

My winter bird gang always includes several beautiful white breasted nuthatches. And I am very delighted to see its shy smaller cousin, the red-breasted nuthatch, although I have yet to capture a photo of it!

In the following 1-minute video from HinterlandWW, you can watch the Red-Breasted Nuthatch in action. As with the White-Breasted Nuthatch, they stay busy combing trees and branches for tasty insects and their larvae.

The Red-Breasted Nuthatch, video from HinterlandWW

Where to Find White-Breasted Nuthatches

White-Breasted Nuthatches are found in most of the U.S., and their range includes parts of Canada as well. They are familiar sights at bird feeders, particularly in the wintertime.

My nuthatches disappear during the summertime when the weather is warmer. I suspect they retreat into the cooler woods where insects are abundant. I look for them again in the fall when leaves start to turn. From then through late spring they are daily visitors at the suet and seed feeders.

Do Nuthatches Visit Your Yard?

See results

If you should happen to be so lucky as to have nuthatches visiting your feeders and trees, be sure to tell them how handsome they are. You will be rewarded with their upside-down antics, and you will surely have a lot less insects to deal with as well!

White Breasted Nuthatch, a/k/a 'Little Devil Down' Bird relishing suet during a recent snowstorm.
White Breasted Nuthatch, a/k/a 'Little Devil Down' Bird relishing suet during a recent snowstorm. | Source
Grandma Pearl a/k/a Connie Smith
Grandma Pearl a/k/a Connie Smith | Source

'You can create yard and garden habitats that Help Birds Survive and Thrive'

Read more by visiting; and

Join me at Rusticbarnwoodbirdhouses to discover more about wildlife in general, and birds in particular.


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    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      5 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hi ps, I'm so glad you stopped by! Nuthatches, it seems, like only the northern part of Florida. That's why you haven't seen one in person yet. However, the way birds are moving around lately, it's possible you may run in to one at some point! It would be interesting to view this old world from another angle, wouldn't it?

      I always enjoy your visits and reading your comments. Thank you so much for the Angels! ;)


    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      5 years ago from sunny Florida

      What an interesting little bird. I have never seen one--I would remember him. Upside down view of the world may be the way to view things, huh?

      Loved the pictures...thanks for sharing...

      Sending you Angels this evening. :) ps

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hi Deb, Thanks! I love my nuthatches for their acrobatics, their crazy 'yank-yank' call and that lovely tuxedo they sport. Sorry you don't have them in your neck of the woods, but the way birds are moving around lately, you never can tell! So glad you stopped by and commented. Very much appreciated.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Fantastic work, Connie! I used to have these little extreme personality birds in both ME and PA. I enjoyed their antics immensely, and really miss them now.

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Thanks Irish, but after yesterday's new accumulations, I am now almost permanently viewing the tops of my shoes! Not really, but I certainly can sympathize. I think it might be time for iRobot to invent an iShovel--what do you think?!!


    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Thanks Mary for your visit and comments; and for the votes. Always very much appreciated, as well as your support in my photographic efforts. In fact, you have given me so much encouragement that I decided to post my very short Redpoll video on Youtube! Thank you.


    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hi Eddy, thanks so much for your supportive comments and votes. Your encouragement always makes me smile! I'm very happy to count you as my friend.


    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hi bravewarrior, you probably don't have them in your part of Florida. They seem to be more in the Northern section of your state. Sorry about that, 'cause they are cute little dudes! Thanks for visiting and for commenting; very much appreciated.


    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 

      6 years ago from Central Florida

      This is interesting. I've not seem them in Florida, or at least not in my neck of the woods.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      As always Pearl this is beautiful,interesting and useful.

      Great work and keep them coming.

      Have wonderful day.


    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      6 years ago from New York

      I love to watch the nuthatches and now you've given me more information. We usually put peanut butter suet out for the woodpeckers but now I know why I see the nuthatches there too!

      Great pictures.

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 

      6 years ago from Upstate, New York

      I send the same thank you back to you, my friend.

      By the way, I have some extra white stuff if you should require it! My back has about reached the shoveling max!

      Glad you are here.

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Hey Irish! So glad you stopped by to visit my bird preserve! We were snowless for a few days during the "January thaw". Now back to 2" or so, but it's not all that cold. The birds are active no matter what, and that makes me smile. You also never fail to make me smile with your encouraging comments. Thanks for your loyal friendship.


    • shiningirisheyes profile image

      Shining Irish Eyes 

      6 years ago from Upstate, New York

      This is so interesting and I found the origin of the birds name fascinating.

      Great write as always. I so enjoy reading about your wonderful natural preserve over there! Snow or no snow!

    • grandmapearl profile imageAUTHOR

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Thanks Billy, birds have so much to offer us and that's why I love to watch them. They take the edge off any bad day! I'm so glad that you and Bev have an active bird sanctuary. Your efforts will be far reaching and very beneficial. Have a wonderful day my friend!


    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      6 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Between you and Deb over at Boomer Lake, I have learned a great deal about birds. Thanks for expanding my knowledge, Pearl. Bev and I are loving our bird sanctuary in the backyard.


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