The little drama below was photographed by Lisa Culp on March 24, 2013 in Somme Prairie Grove.
Many people don’t even notice them, even though you can find nuthatches year round in every good Illinois woods. Only occasionally perching on a branch, they mostly hug tree trunks and limbs. That’s their niche; they hunt bugs and bug eggs in the tree bark.
But when it comes to love, among the nuthatches it's truly a many-splendored thing. The male is a handsome devil, with a beady eye, black cap, and elegant blue-gray, black, and white design. (You can't see his fetching chestnut under tail coverts until he's ready to flaunt them.)
Lisa's camera was following a demure female, with a gray cap and generally more restrained
and subtle style. Suddenly, out of nowhere, she (the person) noticed that she (bird) had company.
Indeed, our little female stopped looking at Lisa and started looking at Mr. Big Stuff.
It turned out that he'd arrived with a bug.
Mrs. Hatch opens her bill with a begging gesture. That's how she indicates she's decided
to give the guy a try. As you can see, this gesture makes him hopping excited. A courtship
is under way, and she is saying, "Yes - yes - feed me."
Now comes the nuthatch version of kissing. They are both holding the bug.
Their bills are together in a very intimate moment. My apologies to any sensitive viewers
for whom this may be too much. (Even more exciting, you get a hint
of those chestnut under tail coverts. Okay, it's not much of a view, and she can't seem them at all. They must fit in to some other stage of the courtship. But there they are.)
He hands off the bug. Be my mate. He's so strong and generous. Or is he?
He flies off to find more presents. She will eat the moth in peace and happiness.
Yes, he's proving himself to be a good provider. But generous? Research on other birds shows that a well-fed female will lay more eggs (containing her, and his, genes). So, for the male, it's not all generosity. Perhaps he's expressing love. But it benefits him too. At least he'll help her feed the chicks, which is more than the bird males of some other species do.
1. She will lay between 3 to 11 eggs in a hole in a tree. They'll both feed the chicks insects and spiders. In winter they also eat acorns that they "hatch" out of their shells by wedging them in a tree crevice and whacking them with their bills.
2. They do best among mature trees with a lot of old dead limbs. Please don't cut down the dead and dying trees in places where you want nature. So many species depend on them.
3. The research on increased egg laying with males feeding females was conducted on terns (which have to be light to effectively dive for fish). The female when she's ready to lay eggs weighs 50% more than when she's not breeding. In fact, she stops feeding herself entirely; she's just too fat. According to the Birder's Handbook by Paul Ehrlich et. al., "when a male warbler, crossbill, chickadee, or tern is seen feeding a female, it seems apparent that he is increasing his own reproductive success by keeping her fat and healthy." Inspiring, isn't it?
4. Nuthatches often fly high into a tree and then descend down the trunk head first, hopping, using their feet more than their wings. No other bird does that. Creative.
5. According to Ehrlich, "Courting male carries food to female, performs bowing and singing ritual with head feathers raised, tail spread." According to Richard Pough in the Audubon Land Bird Guide, nuthatches often mate for life.