They’re adorable, with their short stumpy tails, tiny bodies and toddler-round tummies. They’re constantly active, hopping from branch to branch. Can you tell? Pygmy Nuthatches are one of my favorite birds! I love to watch them fly down to the feeder to grab a seed, then bolt back into safety before “hacking” (“nut hack” has become “nuthatch”) the sunflower shell open against a branch. Sure seems like a lot of work, especially compared to the finches who just sit there shelling and swallowing seeds as fast as they can.
Like so many other animals—dolphins and penguins come immediately to mind—Pygmy Nuthatches are dark on top and light underneath. This pattern helps disguise them from potential predators. Seen from above, their dark gray color blends with the ground (or tree trunks), while their white undersides are hard to spot against a brightly lit sky.
We’re lucky to live where Pygmy Nuthatches abound. They’re only found in western forests, from southern British Columbia to southern Mexico. We also have White-breasted and occasionally Red-breasted Nuthatches in our yard, but the pygmies are by far my favorites. They keep us entertained year-round, traveling down the tree trunks head first looking for insects hiding in the rough Ponderosa bark, or hanging upside down picking seeds and bugs out of pine cones.
I also love how social these little birds are. When the weather is cold, they huddle together for warmth in tree cavities or other sheltered spots. Sometimes these huddles get pretty crowded, with over 150 birds in one tree! When nesting, other males (usually relatives) assist the father with gathering food for the family and with defense, while mom sits on the nest. At all times, they stick together like birds of… exactly!
Pygmies are easy birds to entice into your yard. We have a distinct advantage—we live in a pine forest. That’s ideal habitat—these are birds who definitely prefer conifers, especially Ponderosa pines. They enthusiastically accept our offerings of black-oil sunflower seeds and suet blocks; even more popular is my ice-free water dish. Being cavity nesters, they will use artificial nest boxes, especially if no natural hollows are available. Just make sure the boxes are sized appropriately. Carpeting the interior with loose wood chips will help them feel at home.
I’m impressed that such small birds are able to handle the cold winters we have here. They don’t have a lot of body mass for the amount of surface area exposed to the weather. It turns out that this is one of only a few species able to intentionally become hypothermic. Just like we do at home, these birds can “turn down the thermostat,” regulating their body temperature to save energy. Add that neat trick to their habit of roosting together, and it’s clear why they do just fine in the ice and snow.
While the southeast U.S. doesn’t get to enjoy Pygmy Nuthatches, a very similar species lives there—the Brown-headed Nuthatch. I’d love to compare notes on these close relatives, but that will have to wait for the day when I finally get to go see one.