White-breasted nuthatch

I’ve chosen a favorite among the birds who frequent our backyard bird feeder: an intrepid white-breasted nuthatch who is invariably the first bird to return to the feeder after a flyby-hawk scare. I don’t know whether it’s always the same nuthatch—I haven’t watched our assortment of feeder-birds closely enough to tell members of a particular species apart. But I know there’s always a lone nuthatch who ventures back to the feeder before the other birds do, as if he knows the food will be his, without challenge or competition, if he’s a bit bolder than the rest.

Immature Cooper's hawk

Boldness is a brash and typically stupid move: bold birds make easy meals for predators, vulnerable as they are in their lonely, exposed spots. As much as I’d love to see our resident Cooper’s hawk in action, swooping down from a nearby limb to snatch an inattentive bird at or near our feeder, I don’t want to see a hawk pluck this particular bird. Not a nuthatch, I find myself silently praying to a predator as lightning-fast and invisible as God. Take one of the juncos, or a dim-witted dove, or as many house sparrows as you can stomach, but leave my intrepid nuthatches to live another day.


I’m not sure what it is I find so endearing about nuthatches. I’m charmed, I think, by their jerky, wind-up motions, especially the way they scoot down tree trunks and stiffly hop from limb to limb. I like their honking, almost-cartoonish chuckle, and the assortment of soft squeaks and toots they make among themselves when they’re neither calling nor singing: conversational chips among familiars, like an elderly couple’s mundane chitchat at the breakfast table. I’m cheered by nuthatches’ squat, cigar-like shape and by the fact that they are like chickadees in color but entirely different in posture and demeanor. Chickadees are round and cute—adorable little balls of birdish good cheer—whereas nuthatches are oblong and stubby, clownishly quirky and jerky. Chickadees chatter while nuthatches chuckle; chickadees flit and flutter while nuthatches scoot and jerk. Chickadees are what you’d want a pert and alert bird to look and act like, and nuthatches are comedic caricatures of awkwardly avian behavior: fleet and agile flyers who become clowns on the ground.

Red-breasted nuthatch

J has a short video he shot when we first set up our bird feeder and he trained his camera on it, using a tripod and long lens. The video shows a nuthatch feeding alone on the feeder—my intrepid favorite, or another like him—when a male cardinal lands next to him, sending the hanging feeder spinning with the impetus of his lighting. The nuthatch doesn’t flit away; instead, he clings to his perch and flips upside down, flashing his wings at the cardinal in an aggressive display: back off, I was here first.

Who wouldn’t root for a bird who stands up to a bullying newcomer twice his size?

I don’t have any photos of the white-breasted nuthatches that frequent our backyard feeder, so today’s illustrations come from my photo archives: a white-breasted nuthatch on a colorful feeder behind our neighborhood elementary school, an immature Cooper’s hawk in our backyard, a chickadee near the feeder shown in the first photo, and a red-breasted nuthatch in the tall pines that border our backyard.