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Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch Irruption

As a rule, most Red-breasted Nuthatches winter within their breeding range. Irruptive movements southward typically occur every two to four years when conifer cone production on breeding grounds is poor. This fall’s numbers confirm that it is a banner year for Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Northeast, due to their irruptive flights south.

The large number of Red-breasted Nuthatches at our feeders come as no surprise, as this year’s winter bird forecast by Ron Pittaway predicted a Red-breasted Nuthatch irruption due to the poor spruce seed crops in much of the eastern boreal forest. Even so, the numbers are impressive, as you can see from Ken Kaufmann’s (Audubon’s Field Editor) comparison of eBird’s September 2017 and September 2018 Red-breasted Nuthatch sightings.

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Winter Finch Forecast: Finch Irruption This Winter

11-23-18 common redpoll IMG_3634Things are looking up for those of us who look forward to winters when boreal finches come south in relatively large numbers in search of food.  This is an irruption year for winter finches in the East due to the poor cone and birch seed production in northern Ontario and Quebec.  Seed-eating birds such as finches, grosbeaks, redpolls and siskins will be frequenting our feeders.

Even at this early date, Evening Grosbeak sightings are up noticeably.  Pine Grosbeaks will be taking advantage of good Mountain-ash berry and cone production in New England.  Purple Finch numbers should also be healthy this winter. While Red Crossbills sightings may be scarce, White-winged Crossbills sightings may well be up due to the poor cone crops in the eastern boreal forest. Both Common and Hoary Redpolls should be numerous this winter due to poor crops of birch, alder and conifer seeds further north.

In addition to these finches, large numbers of Blue Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Bohemian Waxwings are predicted due to poor nut, conifer seed and berry crops, respectively, further north. (Ron Pittaway’s Winter Finch Forecast, 2018-2019, http://jeaniron.ca/2018/wff18.htm )  (Photo: Common Redpoll)

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The Nuthatch Name

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Have you ever thought about the derivation of the Red- and White-breasted Nuthatch’s common name? It comes from their habit of wedging a nut, acorn, etc. into a tree’s bark, and by repeatedly striking the nut, “hatching” or exposing the seed within it.

Many of these seeds are then stored in bark furrows for later consumption. In one study it was found that nuthatches spend more time caching husked than unhusked seeds (71% of sunflower seeds cached were husked). This inevitably would lower the expenditure of energy and time spent when consuming the cache later in the season. Hiding time, and time and distance flying from feeders to cache sites were longer when nuthatches hoarded husked than unhusked seeds, perhaps indicating their increased value to the birds. (photo:  White-breasted Nuthatch with husked sunflower seed)

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Birds & Burdock

2-15-16 bird caught on burdock by Holly BroughIMG_5814The phenomenon of North American birds being killed by becoming entangled in Common Burdock (Arctium minus) has been documented since at least 1909, when one observer (in A.C. Bent’s compilation) described finding a multitude of Golden-crowned Kinglets in Common Burdock’s grasp:

They were visible in all directions, scores of them sticking to the tops of the clumps on the most exposed clusters of heads. The struggle had ended fatally for all that I saw, and its severity was evidenced by the attitudes of their bodies and the disheveled condition of their plumage. I examined a number of the burdock heads to determine that attraction had brought the kinglets within range of the hooks, and found insect larvae of two species present in considerable abundance.

Typically this phenomenon involves birds that are seeking either insects that are inhabiting the seed heads, or burdock seeds. The birds’ feathers get caught by the hooked bracts (modified leaves) that surround both the flower heads and seed heads of burdock. Small birds such as kinglets, gnatcatchers, goldfinches, nuthatches, hummingbirds, chickadees, warblers and siskins are the usual victims, but larger birds, including a Blue-headed Vireo and a Barn Swallow, have been caught as well. Most of these birds were found with their wings and tail spread, and caught by many parts of their bodies. The more they struggled, the more their feathers became entangled. Victims are not limited to birds — in 1925, a dead bat was discovered caught in a patch of burdock. (Photo by and thanks to Holly Brough)

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Bark Scaling

12-11-12  bark scaling 024There are two main ways that woodpeckers and occasionally other birds remove bark in search of insects beneath it. One is bark sloughing, where a bird pries off the entire dead layer of bark on a tree (see NC post on 12/5/14). Another method of locating insect larvae that both woodpeckers and nuthatches employ is the removal of individual scales of bark. This is referred to as bark scaling. The pictured hairy woodpecker has removed much of the bark of a dead eastern hemlock using this method.

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