Last year, I had the good fortune to come upon a snag (a dead standing tree) near the shore of Jordan Lake in which brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) were tending a nest. This year, thinking back to those delightful visits, I decided to go investigate the tree again. My first visit revealed no nuthatches in the vicinity, but a second visit a few days later on 15 March revealed they had a nest in the same place again. As these birds may keep mates for several years, I just assumed it was the same pair as in 2014, so it was like seeing old friends!
On 29 March, it looked like the birds were bringing food to the nest. One might also have had a piece of bark in its mouth; these nuthatches may use bark pieces as tools to help dig for insects. If the female had by chance laid her eggs around 15 March, the eggs would have just been hatching now. Usually, it then takes 18-19 days for the babies to fledge, so they could have been ready to fly around 15 April, but the egg-laying and hatching could have been earlier.
On 4 April, the birds were still bringing food to the nest.
Reading up on the species taught me that not only the mating pair but also other individuals, usually young males, help attend the nests. Scientists don’t yet know whether these helpers are older offspring, but it seems to me that it might be similar to the older son helpmates among the American crows.
On the other hand, perhaps the rather fuzzy bird was a baby, which lacks the white neck spot seen in the adults. The babies also tend to have more gray and less brown coloring than adults. On 12 April, I didn’t see any nuthatches, but on 27 April, I saw a bird peeping out of the nest, well past the fledging period I think.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, since 1966, the population of brown-headed nuthatches has declined by 45% because they are losing nesting habitats (dead and pine trees) to deforestation and urbanization. Apparently, they also lose nests to predation.
On 9 May, when I returned to Jordan Lake to see if nuthatches were still around the nest, I found their home tree decapitated, precisely at the spot where the hole had been for their nest. I imagine that a raccoon might have gotten up there, although I suppose some other predator could have wreaked havoc as well. In any event, it means I won’t be able to count on visiting the nuthatches there next spring.
The mysteries of the third bird’s identity and what took down the nest will likely remain unknowns. But at least I have my photos of the lovely little birds’ last nest at that site!