From a distance it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between a nuthatch and a chickadee. The nuthatch is the one climbing down the tree headfirst or upside down on a branch. They are able to do this because of their strong toes and the large claws on their backward-facing toes.
These nuthatches use their strong feet to find insects and their larvae and eggs in the summer, and then nuts and seeds in the winter. In addition, these birds will cache food in the crooks and crevices of trees to save for times when food is scarce. They earned their name, “nuthatch,” because sometimes seeds or nuts are hard to break into. To solve this problem, these birds wedge the seed or nut into the bark of a tree to hold it in place, then hack at it with their beaks. That action is called “hatching.”
When nesting, a pair of red-breasted nuthatches usually digs out a cavity in a dead tree; the lazy (or smart?) ones use an old woodpecker hole. Once the cavity is excavated, they build a nest cup using grasses, mosses, and even shredded bark. They’ve even been known to steal nesting materials from other birds. But the coolest thing about their nests is the finishing touches they put on once they’re done. Red-breasted nuthatches smear the entrance to their nest with globs of resin from coniferous trees (their preferred habitat). Sometimes they carry the resin in their beaks. Other times they will carry it on stick or piece of bark and use it like an applicator! The nuthatches do this to keep out other birds, small mammals, and insects. When they want to get inside, the nuthatches just dive right through the hole.