Many Massachusetts birds cling and crawl on the trunks of trees, but only the curious little nuthatches descend trees head-first. The name “nuthatch” comes from the way these birds deal with tough seeds. A nuthatch will wedge the seed into a bark crevice or branch crotch and use their chisel-like bill to “hatchet” the “nut” open.
There are two species of nuthatches in Massachusetts: white-breasted and red-breasted.
At just shy of six inches long, white-breasted nuthatches are the larger of the two and also more commonly seen. They are bluish-gray above, with black caps on their heads. Their faces, breasts, and bellies are white, with rusty coloration around the bird’s vent. Their bills are fairly long and sharply pointed. White-breasted nuthatches give a distinctive nasal yank yank call, which is easy to recognize once heard.
The smaller conifer-loving red-breasted nuthatch is reddish-orange below and has a bright white stripe across the eye. Red-breasted nuthatches are most commonly encountered in western and north-central Massachusetts, though they can be found all the way out to the Islands. Their call is a higher, reedier version of the white-breasted nuthatch’s, often described as sounding like the tooting of a tiny tin horn.
In addition to their distinctive habit of descending trees head-first, nuthatches will crawl all over tree trunks and larger branches, looking for food in the crevices.
Nuthatches tend to be more wary. They may hitch around to the opposite side of a tree to avoid a curious observer. And while they will readily visit feeders, nuthatches tend to collect just one seed at time and carrying it off to handle and eat somewhere nearby.
As a bird of open mixed forests, white-breasted nuthatches have adapted very well to Massachusetts’ growing community of wooded suburbs. They appear to be increasing in all seasons and can be found across the Commonwealth. Red-breasted nuthatches are also increasing, though they remain less widespread than white-breasted nuthatches. Learn more in the Breeding Bird Atlas 2.