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A Nuthatch In Three Varieties

A red-breasted nuthatch hangs on a tree
National Audubon Society
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This episode of Wild About Utah originally aired in March 2019.

Inverted woodpecker, a phrase I use to describe the feeding habits of the amazing nut hatch family. I first became aware of this lovely little songbird growing up in Michigan, where the white-breasted nut hatch was common fare in the north woods. Their little laughing notes were most welcome as I sat on my deer stand where I would watch them search bark crevices for yummy morsels of grubs, insect eggs or seeds they had wedged in for tomorrow's snack.

Now having lived many years in Utah, it is the red-breasted nut hatch that has replaced this eastern cousin for the most part. Their “yank, yank, yank” vocalizations light up my life whenever and wherever they occur. They prefer conifers but will gladly substitute a deciduous tree, especially those with more furrowed bark. Where there is food or water, infrequently a white-breasted will appear, especially in our higher elevations, although I've had them join the red-breasted at our feeder during winter months – a rare treat.

If one spends much time in our ponderosa pine forests in central and southern Utah, another family member can be found. Unlike the other two more solitary species, these tiny pygmies occur in small flocks and are very chatty. Highly social, the pygmy nut hatch appear to enjoy a food frolic as they fly from tree to tree for feeding and social interaction. Thus, Utah's blessed with all three North American species of nut hatch.

If you observe them as they search the main stem of a tree, my inverted woodpecker title will be justified. Rather than moving from top to bottom of the tree facing up as do the woodpeckers, the nut hatch prefers head down from top to bottom. They also like hanging upside down on a horizontal limb. Why? Evolution keeps us mysteries well-guarded. I conjecture partitioning might be part of the answer: a phenomenon where bird species will utilize different parts of the tree to avoid competing for resources with other species.

As with all of life, I pay attention to how our shifting climate has been observed or predicted to affect their populations and distribution. As long as there are conifers breeding season, nut hatches are content. They can be found in dry ponderosa pine foothills, in moist boreal bogs, around tree line in the mountains, and even in planted Christmas tree plantations. Audubon’s seven-year generated climate model shows an overall northward drift of the species’ range with more disruption and range loss in summer than in winter. The nut hatch is a habitat generalist in winter, so summertime climate is the chief concern going forward. However, whether the species adapts in the decades ahead will be determined in large part by the conifer forest health in a changing climate. The projection for species range change from 2000 to 2080 is 19% of summer 2000 range remaining stable and 58% of winter range projected to be stable. It's my plan to follow them wherever they may go.

Wild about Utah is brought to you in part by our listeners and the Moab area travel council, whose support of tourism events and recreation in Grand county promotes and protects the natural beauty for visitors from across the state of Utah. Information available online at discovermoab.com

This is Jack Green, reading and getting wilder about Utah as days pass.