Winter has its advantages, with no leaves on many of our trees its easier than any season to watch some birds. Such as the very smart, somewhat plump Nuthatch who is about the size of a Great Tit but resembles a small woodpecker. Watching them, they also operate like a little woodpecker, scurrying up tree trunks and along branches in search of insects, which it winkles from nooks and crevices with their stout, sharp bill. They observe a very seasonal diet, relying on insects, spiders and beetles in the spring and summer and switching to nuts and seeds in the autumn and winter.
The ‘hatch’ part of the bird’s name comes from the old French word hach, meaning axe or hatchet, reflecting the bird's method of opening up nuts by jamming them into a crevice then hammering at them. Old country names include mud dabbler and mud stopper, both of which note the bird's habit of plastering mud to narrow the entrance hole to its nest. Though they will move into nest boxes, they cannot resist plastering mud around the entrance hole, even if it is already the right size! Numbers are known to fluctuate quite widely from year to year, probably reflecting the availability of seed and nuts during the winter.
As anyone who has nuthatches visiting their bird feeders will know, they are bold and aggressive, able to stand their ground when larger birds such as starlings or well known bullies such as Robins attempt to intimidate them. As well as eating all they can, Nuthatches will also take food from the bird table to store elsewhere. The fact that food is stored within the territory strengthens the need for a breeding pair to stay together and defend it throughout the year. In the past the Nuthatch was largely restricted to south-east England, it is thought their expansion north began as recently as the 20th century. One of the key reasons for the expansion seems to be the nuthatch's increasing use of bird feeders and bird tables, so keep it up!
Most nuthatches are highly sedentary, seldom moving far from where they hatched, so their slate blue upper body and peachy undersides are moving around all year but right now they are not only more visible but more vocal. Nuthatches are one of the nosiest woodland birds in the early spring, but then fall relatively silent when breeding begins. Nuthatches will lay between 4 – 13 eggs per clutch, the eggs are smooth, glossy and white with reddish-brown spots. Only the female incubates the eggs for 14 – 18 days, then once the young have hatched both parents will feed them for 23 – 25 days before the young fledge the nest.