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It’s in your nature: Tree-huggers

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    Woodpeckers, such as this red-bellied woodpecker, use their stiff tail feathers as a prop to climb trees and to drill.

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    Black and white warblers seem to cover every square inch of a trunk as they also move downward with ease.

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    Our largest and year-round resident “tree hugger” is the white-breasted nuthatch. They will usually make regular bird feeder visits.

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    This red-breasted nuthatch was a regular winter visitor to my feeders. Note the dark eye line and white eyebrow. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

Published December 07. 2019 08:03AM


Nature has provided animals special adaptations to allow them to survive and ultimately to continue the species. Birds have some special adaptations. Three bird species that can be found in the Times News region (two that breed here) have adapted by walking (moving) head first down tree trunks.

As mentioned in a prior column, the special role a species has in nature is called its niche. White-breasted nuthatches, red-breasted nuthatches, and black and white warblers spend much of their lives moving head first down the trunks of trees looking for their grub. Other bird species, such as downy and hairy woodpeckers and brown creepers generally work their way slowly up a tree trunk to search for insects, insect’s larva, spiders or insect eggs.

My “tree-huggers” have shorter tails and better adapted feet and claws for gripping onto tree trunks. Their bills are rather thin and pointed to reach into rather inaccessible spots on the trunks. Obviously, their adaptations allowed them to change their centers of gravity for this downward trekking.

Probably most familiar to you is the white-breasted nuthatch. It is a common visitor at feeders where it slips in, grabs a sunflower seed, and quickly flies off to another trunk to pry open the seeds hull. They also enjoy my suet feeders eating both beef suet and the commercial woodpecker blocks. They are about 5½ inches in length and the largest of the three tree-huggers. It uses a typical call of: nut, nut, nut and is surprisingly quite vocal compared to juncos or cardinals. They do nest here, typically in hollow tree cavities and become one of our forests’ winter residents.

The red-breasted nuthatch is about an inch smaller than its cousin. Red-breasted nuthatches are common migrants, and winter residents here. Their populations here seem to be cyclic. I have not seen any this year and I surmise it may be an “off year.” They have a characteristic black eye line, white eyebrow line grayish back, and a rusty breast. I usually hear them before seeing them with a more nasal, higher pitched; neat, neat, neat call. I have had them visit my feeders but they seem to gravitate to deeper forest (often with more conifers) areas.

Black and white warblers round out the trio of tree-huggers. They are not year-round residents here, but they do nest and breed in this region. As their name implies, they are a black and white, zebralike colored bird. I begin seeing them the last few days of April and this fall I still recorded a few the last week of September. They spend most of their time moving down and around tree trunks but are just at home gleaning food upside down from the underside of tree limbs. They reach about 5¼ inches in size. They are generally mixed forest birds and I’ve never seen one in towns where some nuthatches could be found.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: A tamarack is a ______. A. cartop kayak carrier, B. another name for a blue spruce, C. another name for a larch, D. a fungus that grows on tree trunks.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: A timber doodle is a common name for the American woodcock.

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