Would you know a nuthatch if you spotted one? RSPB England’s Becca Smith delves into the identifiable features and behaviours of this distinctive bird.  

Nuthatches are the awesome “bandit” looking feathered friends that are often found scurrying to and fro in woodlands storing their food. The only bird to move upside down when climbing trees, it is their distinctive behaviours that have earnt them their name. Once found only in England and Wales, the population has increased since the 1970s, expanding into parts of Scotland thanks to milder winters.

Nuthatch key stats

Size: about the size of a great tit
Identifiable features: blue-grey upper wings with a buff underside. A distinctive black stripe runs from their beak across the eye and to the back of the head
When to see them: all year round
Where to see them: woodlands and established parklands in England, Wales and some parts of Scotland
What do they eat: insects and nuts and seeds such as hazelnuts and acorns
Song: listen here.

How to spot a nuthatch

Nuthatches are best spotted in mature woodlands, where they scurry up and down the trees distinctively. Descending tree trunks, especially mature oak trees, head first, these birds are the only British species to climb trees in this way.

Stuffing and cracking nuts into the crevices of tree trunks, 90% of a nuthatch’s time is spent gathering and caching food during winter, making now the best time to observe how these birds got their name. With their strong, long bills, nuthatches can be seen picking insects from trees in the warmer months or hammering at nuts and seeds during winter.

Often mistaken for a treecreeper, the nuthatch is brighter in colour, whereas treecreepers have a mottled brown camouflaged upper plumage and white underbelly. The best way however to tell the two apart is through their movements, as only nuthatches can move downwards on a tree, with treecreepers instead moving upwards in a spiral motion in search of insects under the surface of tree bark.

How to attract nuthatches to your garden

If you’re lucky enough to live near a woodland or established park, nuthatches may visit your garden to stock up on supplies. Winter is the best time to attract these birds to your garden, as during the breeding season, they almost solely feed on live invertebrates found underneath tree bark.

In the winter, nuthatches mainly eat nuts and seeds, so it’s not unusual to see them enjoying sunflower hearts, seed mixes and peanuts left out for them in gardens. Chunks of peanut are often readily taken away to be stored for up to 30 days in a nearby tree, using their typical caching methods to ensure they have food for the colder months ahead.

When feeding garden birds, be sure to keep your feeders clean to help prevent the spread of disease. We recommend cleaning feeders weekly with soap and water and ensuring that no uneaten seed is allowed to accumulate for long periods of time. You should also clean feeders outside and don rubber gloves. Why not get your feeders ready now to attract a feathered friend or two in time for the Big Garden Birdwatch?

There’s still time to sign up to the Big Garden Birdwatch. Register here: rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.

Credit: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)