Nuthatches are increasingly common in orchards, relying on fungi-created cavities in trees. Charmingly, they plaster mud around the entrance to restrict the opening to the minimum diameter the can squeeze through . . .
Until recently the nuthatch was a comparative rarity – at least in terms of sightings. This is naturally a woodland bird, but its love of seeds – particularly in winter – and its dependence on cavities for breeding, mean it has taken readily to suburban life. This is welcome, for its brazen colouration and demeanour more than compensate for its lack of table manners and aggression.
Under their blue backs, both sexes sport orange-tinted chests and ‘Lone Ranger’ black eye bands, The last seems to sum up its character as the highwayman of the bird table, for it flits in with no warning to seize prize titbits under the noses of more regular visitors.
While displaying little overt aggression, the interloper elbows its way to the front of the queue, pushing more familiar tits and finches out of the way. Its manners are clearly appalling, yet somehow its flashy plumage and bravado imbue it with a cavalier, swashbuckling, appeal. And like so many romantic desperados, it leaves problems in its wake. This is a gourmand: taking only the best and extravagantly flicking away most seeds in favour of a few choice favourites. So however welcome the buccaneer might be to a watching human, later this waste can prove a powerful magnet for mice and rats.
Nuthatches are unrelated to woodpeckers, but bear more than a passing resemblance to the bigger birds. They typically hunt by hopping along the bark to search crevices for insects. Uniquely among British birds, however, they can move both up and down, immediately distinguishing them from the similarly-sized treecreeper which can only move up a trunk or branch.
Nuthatches are a woodland species, but have readily taken to its modern equivalent of suburbia where the mixture of trees and shrubs mimics the forest edge. Normally they rely on seeds such as cobs, beechmast and acorns in winter, but turn to protein-rich insects to rear their young in summer.
A brood of up to nine young are raised in a cavity – ideally a hollow tree or deep nest box – but unlike woodpeckers they do not excavate this themselves. Instead they adapt whatever is available, narrowing the entrance hole to their preferred diameter of a little under two inches with a mixture of mud and saliva. This keeps out rival nesters (such as starlings) and predators (magpies, weasels and cats).
Fortunately for bird watchers, nuthatches seem to be a climate change winner. A century ago they were largely confined to southern England, but despite their conservative habits (most rarely venture far from their natal wood), over the past 50 years they have spread west and north. Today they are now found everywhere south of the border and 100 or more pairs breed in Scotland (where, thanks to plenty of suitable woodland, they look set for rapid expansion).