Saturday, February 13, 2010

Devil Down-Head Bird

Many people have asked me, “Where are the birds this winter.”

Birds that we are used to seeing around our bird feeders have been absent this year. My bird seed bill is lower this winter than last year. Winter finches are missing; occasionally I have had a few goldfinches, but nothing like the hoards of goldfinches and siskins that were around in ‘09. My thistle feeder, a favorite of the finches, has not needed refilling once this year.

There are two possibilities. I saw a brief notice somewhere that the natural food supply in Canada, where many of our winter finches come from, produced an abundant crop last year, meaning that the birds did not have to engage in energy expensive travel. Canadian siskins, finches, redpolls, and grosbeaks stayed home. From further south in New England, the reports of finches seems normal. Our summer finches have gone south, while northern finches have stayed north. Apparently.

I’ve had a banner year for juncos with a foraging flock of 60+ making several visits every day. Beyond these small snowbirds, my feeder birds have been limited to the year round residents - those hardy birds that live and breed through the seasons.

One of those birds is the “Devil Down-head,” a little gray and white bird, that is delightful to watch. It “is a droll, earnest little bird, rather sedate and unemotional. He is no great musician .... He is short-necked, broad-shouldered, sturdy, quick and sure in his motions, suggesting an athlete, and as we study him on his daily round, as he hops up and down over the bark, we see that he is an athlete with marked skill as an acrobat, like the tumbling kind, as much at home upside down as right side up.”

That description opens Bent’s Life History and describes characteristics of this bird which give it some of its folk names. It is a songbird that can’t sing. Its song can be accurately rendered as a nasal “ank, ank, ank,” leading many birders to refer to it as the ank-ank.

It is the upside-down bird. Many birds can run up a tree trunk. This bird can run up and down a tree trunk with equal alacrity. “They seem to have taken lessons from the squirrel,” wrote Edward Forbush, “ which runs down the tree head first, stretching out his hind feet backward and so clinging to the bark with his claws as he goes down ....” With only two feet, this little bird “hitches nimbly down the tree head first - something that other birds hardly attempt - and it runs around the trunk in the same way with feet wide apart.”

I am, of course, talking about the “topsy-turvy,” rather boringly named in common parlance as the White-breasted Nuthatch. Banding studies have shown that they return to the same wintering grounds in succeeding years. Although I have no way of proving it, I am quite certain that the ones that patronize my feeders in the winter are the same birds that breed in the neighbor. In the summer time, a topsy-turvy will perch upside down on a tree trunk and watch as I fill the feeders. As I go in the kitchen door, I hear “ank, ank,” and through the window I see the nuthatch hurry in to grab a seed. The same routine is played out in the winter; the only difference is in the temperature and the color of the ground. In all seasons, I like to think that my nuthatch neighbor is politely saying “thank you” with its “ank, ank,” and I always respond, “You’re welcome.”

There is nothing mysterious about the nuthatch name. “Hatch” derives from “hack.” The nuthatch often flies off with a nut, or seed (like a sunflower seed) that needs to be opened. It wedges the seed or nut into a crevice and hacks the hull open, or hacks the nut into small pieces. The same lack of mystery is true for its genus name, Sitta, which comes from the Greek and means “nuthatch.”

Europeans moving to North America were familiar with nuthatches (there are six species in Birds of Europe). Consequently, the early naturalists gave them descriptive names, by which I also mean boring names. Audubon, for example, described the White-breasted Nuthatch which has a white breast, the Red-bellied Nuthatch (now known as the Red-breasted) which has a reddish belly or breast, the Brown-headed Nuthatch which has a brown head, and the Pygmy Nuthatch, which is the smallest nuthatch. Ho-hum.

Audubon speculated that there were two more nuthatches to be discovered: “one larger than any of those known, in the high wooded plains bordering the Pacific Ocean; the other, of nearly the size of the present species, towards the boundary line of Texas and the United States.” He was wrong, but I wonder if he was trying to achieve a balance between Europe with its six nuthatch species and North America.

Today the White-breasted Nuthatch is our most common nuthatch, a reversal of what Audubon observed. He knew the White-breasted as “the least numerous; there being to appearance more than three of the Brown-headed, and two of the Red-bellied, for every one of the White-breasted.” The White-breasted inhabits leafy forests, but also frequents large trees in parks and suburbs. The Brown-headed is found in southeastern pine forests, while the Red-breasted (Red-bellied) prefers dense coniferous forests of the north and high mountains. The change in the relative populations since Audubon’s observations reflects the vast changes in the landscape which humans have effected.

The White-breasted Nuthatch which frequents my feeders grabs a preferred sunflower seed and flies off. Most of the time it is probably taking the seed to a tree where it can wedge it in a crack, and then hatch it open. But not always. Forbush again: “In winter the nuthatches have a habit of storing food in the crevices of the bark of trees or in cracks of poles, under loose shingles, clapboards, etc. I have seen quantities of chestnuts thus stored by them under the flakes of the bark of a shag-bark walnut tree. Seeds and acorns are often so stored and are used by the birds in time of want when ice storms coat the trees, if the jays and squirrels have not already stolen them.”

Yesterday I watched a nuthatch on a bell feeder just outside the kitchen window. Its feet grasped the ring at the top, an upside-down-bird clinging acrobatically to its perch while it picked off the seeds.

Head first, the Devil-down-head creeps down the trunk of the tree outside my window. The folk name is often reported by writers, but parsing its origin has been difficult. The Devil is said to turn everything upside down, so I guess the name suggests that this bird which creeps down head first has been turned on its head by the devil. The nuthatch has become a victim of the Devil; there does not seem to be any animosity toward the bird due to its having been victimized. I should hope not. Watching the acrobatics of the nuthatch during the winter is what I imagine keeps the angels entertained.

Good birding!


eileeninmd said...

Awesome shot of the Wb Nuthatch!

Chris said...

Hi Chris,
Awesome post with a lot of info and beautiful picture of the nuthatch! I've never seen a white breasted as we only have to other species in France... You are lucky to get so many warblers as we have very few over here!

Unknown said...

Absolutely gorgeous shots and a fascinating post. My thistle feeder is virtually untouched this year, too. I have very few goldfinches and only a couple of nuthatches. Sad, really.

CE Webster said...

Great photo of the nuthatch! Enjoyed all the pictures.

Tina said...

We also enjoy our little white-breasted nuthatches and see them all year round. They are quite the acrobats and fun to watch. I recently saw my first red-breasted and brown headed I wish they, too, would visit my feeders..but we are happy with our wb ones.. Thanks for all the info about these neat little birds!!

Susan Ellis said...

Nice! I have both red and white throughout the year, and love watching both of them. Have had tons of goldfinches all winter (in the Ottawa Valley, just north of Ottawa) and have gone through several bags of niger. Lots of hairy, downy and pileated woodpeckers too but not purple finches or siskins or grosbeaks.

Gail said...

I love these pictures! What a beautiful blog.

I'll be sure to stop by again!

Carlib said...

Interesting little bird!
Obviously behaving much like our European Wood Nuthatch!
The weather seems warmer in some places in up North (Canada...)! Maybe the birds didn't feel necessary to fly southward?!
Great article, Chris!
Thanks for the info!

Warren and Lisa Strobel said...

Great post, Chris. And, as always, you make some wonderful pictures. One of our favorite birds....


Unknown said...

I never heard this "Devil-down-head" nickname before! As always, your post is educational and your photos phenomenal! Thanks!


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