Not Scary but Creepy

I recently had my feeders flattened by a American Black Bear (Ursus americanus) fattening up on bird seed before going into its winter sleep. Unfortunately, bears can learn which houses have feeders and make this a habit. They will make regular visits on a neighborhood circuit.

A Black Bear has raided the bird feeders. This photo was taken through my upstairs window. Notice the flattened poles and bent metal feeder top. A Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis) in the lower left of the photo surveys the scene. Photo by the author.

My metal feeder had its top bent open. My two tubular feeders were entirely drained of seed. So I’ve learned the hard way that it is best to take precautions. To not have a bear become used to finding food, I won’t put up my bird feeders until December. Or I’ll just take the feeders in at night when bears are more active. Another strategy is to switch from black oil sunflower seed to safflower seed, which bears don’t care for. I switched from regular suet to a recipe with hot pepper. Birds are fine with it, but bears don’t like it.

It is not a good idea to continue to feed black bears after they first visit a bird feeder. Better to stop feeding until December or switch to safflower seed and suet with hot pepper – foods bears don’t like. Feeding them can lead to bears associating people with food, which is not a good result. Photo by Hmbaker, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Now that I have straightened the pole that holds the feeders and repaired the bent feeder, the birds have returned. I am noticing that they often arrive in waves. This is because many of our local bird species form mixed flocks during the colder months, when nesting territories break up. In a flock of different species, which might include Black-capped Chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) and Downy Woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens), these birds might better help each other find food and alert each other about predators during the colder, leaner months. Also included in these flocks are nuthatches and creepers, birds that creep along bark looking in crevices for sleeping insects and spiders.

The White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is nicknamed “the upside-down bird” for its habit of walking head down looking for food in bark crevices. There it finds food that birds who hunt right side up don’t often find. This is likely an example of niche partitioning, which allows competing species to use the same environment in different ways.

A typical pose for the White-breasted Nuthatch, the upside-down bird.” This is a male, which has a black crown and nape. In Females, the crown and nape is greyish. Photo by Jocelyn Anderson, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

How can nuthatches walk upside down? A nuthatch has one large toe, called a hallux, that faces backward. The other three toes face forward. It moves one foot at a time, while the hallux of the other foot holds onto the bark. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could do that? White-breasted Nuthatches also hunt right side up and sideways too.

Hunting for insects upside-down helps nuthatches find food that birds hunting while walking upward might not see. Notice how this bird braces with one foot while preparing to walk with another foot. Photo by Bettina Arrigoni, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

A White-breasted Nuthatch has a bluish-gray back, and a white face and underparts. Its black cap extends to the back of its head and looks almost like a hood. It is the largest nuthatch, but is only about 5 inches (13 centimeters) long, about the size of an average sparrow. Its large head doesn’t seem to have a neck. In a typical pose the bird faces downward with its head looking up.

White-breasted Nuthatches are common in forests of mature oak, hickory, basswood, and maple, as well as along woodland edges. They are permanent residents in Connecticut. Listen for their loud, nasal “yank, yank” call.

Not as common in Connecticut, and smaller than the White-breasted Nuthatch, is the Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). It is a resident of northern coniferous forests. This bird will sometimes be here in greater numbers during periodic winter visits called irruptions, when the northern cone crop is smaller and the birds fly south to the lowlands. Like its name suggests, the Red-breasted Nuthatch has a red belly. It also has a black stripe through the eye. Listen for its weak, more nasal “ink, ink” call, which is shorter and higher-pitched than that of the White-breasted Nuthatch.

Red-breasted Nuthatches are smaller than White-breasted Nuthatches. Notice the black stripe going through the eye on this bird, which besides the reddish belly is another field mark. Photo by Blalonde, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Another creeping bird, sometimes seen in mixed flocks and occasionally at seed and suet feeders, is the Brown Creeper (Certhia americana). The Brown Creeper is an uncommon species in Connecticut, since it prefers mature forests. It is a perfect example of an animal with cryptic coloration. Its mottled, brown color above blends perfectly with tree bark. When a bird feels threatened, it will freeze on the tree—it is really hard to see them!

Look at how well this Brown Creeper blends in with the bark in this photo. Photo by Melissa McMasters from Memphis, TN, United States, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Brown Creepers search for insects and spiders in bark by first flying to the base of a tree, then spiraling their way up the tree in a barber pole pattern. They use their stiff tail feathers as a brace and then hop as they search for food.

Brown Creepers often spiral up a tree in a barber pole pattern. Notice the pointed, curved beak, a great adaptation for prying insects out of bark crevices. Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Now that black bears are sleeping in their dens, I can enjoy watching nutchatches at my feeder. I will be on the lookout for that occasional Brown Creeper too.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

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