Illustration by Mark Greco
Back garden birdwatchers know there’s a pecking order on the peanut feeder. Coal Tits are elbowed out by Blue Tits who in turn are ousted by Great Tits. But when the Nuthatch shows up everything scarpers. I don’t blame them. If I was jostling at an all-you-can eat buffet and some fella in a black mask brandishing a machete jumped in I’d be off in a flash too. With its streamlined body, blue back, pink chest and black eye-stripe the Nuthatch cuts a dynamic figure; a swashbuckling, bird table buccaneer. The weapon it wields is a stout, dagger-like beak but it’s not designed for skewering birds. Nuthatches are nuts about nuts.
The Nuthatch’s name comes from ‘nut hacker’, a reference to the bird’s habit of jamming hazelnuts and acorns into tree crevices and then using its powerful bill to noisily smash them open. There’s an old Sussex name which fits this manic, intense bird perfectly: Nutjobber. I have never seen this nutty little bird sitting still. They’re so crazy about climbing that they’re the only British bird that can actually climb headfirst down a tree.
At this time of year our garden birds become more vocal and aggressive as they claim and defend territories and croon their tunes to attract a mate. Spring lacks this urgency for the male Nuthatch. He hasn’t stopped fighting all winter as he angrily defends his hectare of woodland. Nuthatches are monogamous too and the loyal pair soon dispense with spring serenades and get down to the hard work of making a home. Many birds start from scratch. Twigs and moss are laboriously collected and nests are painstakingly woven. Nuthatches however are happy to let someone else undertake the heavy construction work. Their residence of choice is a spacious tree cavity drilled and abandoned by a woodpecker. Sure, it needs a bit of work but the Nuthatches will make do and mend. The main problem is the front door. It’s too big. This gaping hole can let in predators or Starling squatters who will happily turf out nesting Nuthatches. So while the male keeps guard the female Nuthatch starts bricking up the entrance hole. Her bill is used like a plasterer’s trowel smearing mouthfuls of mud until the terracotta porch is perfectly Nuthatch-sized. She is a compulsive builder and if they move into a nestbox she still cannot resist plastering mud around the hole, even if it’s already the right size.
And it’s great to report on a bird that’s actually increasing in number and range. Once restricted to south-east England the Nuthatch now breeds in Scotland – probably assisted by the provision of garden peanut feeders as it marched north. And as Britain seemingly gets crazier by the day it’s nice to know there’s still space for a few more nutjobs.
Michael Blencowe, Senior Learning & Engagement Officer, Sussex Wildlife Trust