White-breasted nuthatch


Red-breasted nuthatches are fairly common in Calgary. When I walk on the sidewalks, I often hear their “yank, yank, yank” calls coming from within the many front-yard spruce trees. Two to four Red-breasted nuthatches visit the backyard feeders every day. But I only occasionally see the slightly larger White-breasted nuthatches. I’ve seen one twice at the black sunflower seed feeder and I’ve glimpsed a few dart up and down large trees in a handful of forested Calgary parks. This little cutie was tree trunk hopping in South Glenmore Park.


Why are nuthatches called nuthatches? They jam large seeds and nuts into tree bark before whacking them with their sharp bill to hatch out the seed from the inside.

What do they eat in the winter? Nuthatches mostly eat insects when the weather is warm enough but in the winter, they rely on seeds and nuts. They often cache seeds and nuts to eat later. One at a time, they store them under the loose bark of a tree, camouflaging their cache with a piece of bark, lichen, moss, or snow.



The sun was playing peek-a-boo that day. I noticed the White-breasted nuthatch, while I was waiting for the sun to pop back out and illuminate the orange lichen on the balsam poplar trunks.



Linguistic postscript:

Scientific name: Sitta carolinensis
French: Sitelle à poitrine blanche

Sitta is from the Ancient Greek word for nuthatch. Aristotle mentions nuthatches in his History of Animals. In French, the Eurasian nuthatch (Sitta europaea) is called “Sitelle torchepot”. Pot wiping nuthatch? “Pot” refers to the tree-hole nuthatches nest in. Eurasian nuthatches reduce the size of the entrance of their nesting holes with a mixture of mud and saliva. This plaster is called “torchis” in French. And the verb “torcher” means to wipe and it also means to apply a plaster of mud and other natural materials. North American nuthatches do not plaster the entrances of their nesting holes but they do wipe their bills on them. I don’t know why.

Archaic English words for nuthatch: nuthack, nutpecker, nutjobber.

A little about plastering and bill-wiping:


  1. I think I’ve mentioned to you that we have the reverse situation? Plenty of the White-breasted but rarely see the Red-breasted. They are perfectly happy to eat the seeds we put out in the summer (the rare occasion that we put seeds out in the summer). 🙂

    So pretty where you are with a light dusting of snow!

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    • It is always interesting to read what birds you see in your area. I just looked at some habitat maps and it looks like the Reds prefer more northern latitudes, which makes sense from the Red and White Latin names.
      We got a few light dustings of snow in November. It brightened up the landscape without requiring much shovelling :-).

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  2. Although I was once fairly fluent in French, verbs like torcher still trip me up. Quite a different use than how we use the word in English.
    What a cutie you found, and the photo is really nice. I see these little guys once in awhile here. In our neighborhood many of the trees are maturing, which means more bugs which means more nuthatches and also hairy woodpeckers, another little cutie I can’t resist.

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    • You’re right, nuthatches and hairy woodpeckers prefer more mature trees. I guess I’m lucky to have 4 mature trees in my backyard :-)! Do you see downy woodpeckers too?

      Where/when did you learn French? French is my first language but English has been my main language for a long time so I am more fluent in English.


      • That is really interesting, Myriam. I can see how that would happen. I studied French all through high school and college. In college my instructor was a real Frenchman who taught us conversational French. We would have philosophical debates in French until I found myself thinking and even dreaming in French. Ah, I loved it. It is a beautiful language and culture. I suspect you are far more fluent in English than I was in French, though, and most of what I had is gone. 😦
        Oh, downy woodpeckers! They are my favorites, but I haven’t seen one in quite awhile. Were they one of the species that was hit by West Nile Virus? I seem to think so.

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        • Sounds like you had a wonderful experience learning French :-). I should read in French more often, but I usually gravitate toward English because I can read much faster. I watched The Little Prince recently (the new animated movie) in both French and English. I liked the feel of the French version better. I often wish I was fluent in other languages when I watch foreign movies… but it is pretty cool to just hear the sounds while reading subtitles.

          I’m not sure if Downy woodpeckers were very affected by the West Nile Virus. I did read that corvids, raptors and passerines are quite susceptible. A couple of downies visit my backyard regularly. I usually see hairies on the enormous poplars in a nearby neighborhood or in forested areas.


          • I know what you mean. When I hear Italian spoken, I can sometimes follow the gist fairly well because the verbs are similar to those in French but I have never mastered Spanish. I agree, the French version of the Little Prince is just better. 🙂
            Our area was hit hard by the virus. I remember seeing drifts of dead birds along roadsides and trails. It was awful. But you’re right, when I looked it up Downy Woodpeckers weren’t affected. I love it that you see them in your yard.

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          • I read a couple of articles about West Nile Virus in birds from Cornell University and it seems that in different species, different percentages of individuals develop antibodies, so some species have a lot of deaths while others have less or none. Yellow-billed magpies, which live only in California, lost half their population. When researchers tested living yellow-billed magpies, they did find one in 21 with antibodies. Maybe this small percentage of immune individuals will allow the species to survive.


  3. The opposite is true for us – the red nuthatches are rare, being a more northern bird, I guess, and the the white are the ones we see all the time. Their call to me sounds like they are laughing… “ha-ha, ha-ha” 🙂 They always cheer me up!

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    • Thanks Deborah :-).

      My parents speak both French and English, but we usually communicate in French. So I’ve been trying to learn bird names in French too. And sometimes this leads to many Google searches and I learn a few other things about the birds… Do you use French much?

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        • Bravo pour la lecture en Français! Moi je lis rarement en Français, mais j’essaie de regarder des films de temps à autre.

          I find it hard to be fluent in a language when I don’t use it for daily communication.


  4. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side. I have seen a Red-breasted Nuthatch only once in my garden and long to see it again. But the White-breasted Nuthatch are plentiful here and they are fun to watch.

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    • True :-). Many birds are delightful… but the rare ones are always particularly special. When I lived in Vancouver, I saw my first and only Red-breasted nuthatch. Boy was it special then! But I’m glad I get to see them everyday in my backyard trees now.


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