About Nuthatches

Nuthatches are among the easiest birds to describe to non-birdwatchers: if you see a bird climbing down a tree head first, it can only be a nuthatch; if it only climbs upwards, it is something else. This habit is diagnostic for all 24 species, except perhaps the rock nuthatches, which rarely occur on trees anyway.

Erik Matthysen,
Introduction to the Nuthatches

Two distinct subfamilies are included under this general head. The nuthatches (Sittinae) are small, slate-colored birds, seen chiefly in winter walking up and down the barks of trees, and sometimes running along the under side of branches upside down, like flies. Plumage compact and smooth. Their name is derived from their habit of wedging nuts (usually beechnuts) in the bark of trees, and then hatching them open with their strong straight bills.

The titmice or chickadees (Parinae) are fluffy little gray birds, the one crested. the other with a black cap. They are also expert climbers, though not such wonderful gymnasts as the nuthatches. These cousins are frequently seen together in winter woods or in the evergreens about houses. Chickadees are partial to tree-tops, especially to the highest pine cones, on which they hang fearlessly. Cheerful, constant residents, retreating to the deep woods only to nest.

Neltje Blanchan, Bird Neighbors
available from the Northern Michigan Birding Website

Adult male and female White-breasted Nuthatches look similar, with a bluish black back and white chin, throat, breast, and belly. The sides of the belly and the undertail feathers are rust. The male's cap is black, but the female's is dark gray.

White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis
Cornell Labroratory of Ornithology

Red-breasted Nuthatches are almost always found in conifer trees, where they live in pairs. Often, one can hear the male and female "talking softly" to each other with single, nasal-sounding contact notes, while they forage a few meters apart along the trunks and branches of pine or spruce trees.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta Canadensis
Cornell Labroratory of Ornithology