Nuthatches: The Birds That Walk Upside Down

Nuthatches are one of my favourite birds. In part because of their extraordinary ability to walk headfirst down trees. No other birds in North America can do this. This post talks about how they do it and why.

A nuthatch "walks" down a tree.

How Do They Do That!?

First, nuthatches are not actually “walking” down the tree. They are hanging from foot to foot, but they do it so seamlessly that it appears as if they are walking.

They’re able to move like this because of their strong toes and legs. Nuthatches have four toes. Three of them face forward and one faces backwards. This backwards facing toe is called the hallux. It’s longer than the other toes and is shaped like a claw that curves downwards. This strong claw-like toe helps nuthatches cling to the bark of a tree while facing the ground.

Other birds, like woodpeckers and brown creepers, brace themselves to trees with the help of their tail feathers. But, these birds cannot climb downwards like the nuthatch.

Why Do They Do That?

As for why nuthatches do this, the leading theory is that walking upside down gives them a different perspective while foraging. This alternative perspective makes it easier for them to find food missed by other birds. According to John Eastman, “a foraging nuthatch typically flies from the base of one tree to the top of another, working the trunks from the top down.” Occasionally, nuthatches will climb up a tree as well.

Climbing downwards is an important skill because nuthatches often join other birds in winter flocks. Winter flocks offer increased protection from birds of prey and other predators. I see nuthatches most often with black-capped chickadees and downy woodpeckers. They are also known to hang out with tufted titmice and brown creepers. These birds forage in different ways minimizing the competition for food. For instance, woodpeckers and brown creepers forage by travelling up a tree. Nuthatches will pick up food items that they miss and vice versa.

More About Nuthatch Foraging

Nuthatches cache nuts and seeds to subsist on in the winter months. They get their name from the way that they open a nut or seed. They’ll wedge them in a crevice and hammer them open with their bills.

According to Ornithologist Noble Proctor, “If you have a feeder in your yard it is not uncommon to hear pounding on the side of your house early in the morning as a bird jams the seeds in between shingles and then pounds them to split the hard coat.” In the summer months, nuthatches eat insects, eggs, larvae, and spiders.

Other Posts You May Enjoy

Feeding Chickadees and Chickadee Facts

Why Do Birds Sing in the Early Morning?

Ring-Billed Gulls

Sources

The Eastman Guide to Birds: Natural History Accounts for 150 North American Species by John Eastman.

Songbirds: How to Attract Them and Identify Their Songs by Noble Proctor

6 comments on “Nuthatches: The Birds That Walk Upside Down

  1. I discovered these unique little birds at our feeder a few years ago, and when mentioning it to a friends who enjoy many different birds at their feeders, Hi was told they were nuthatches….one came to our feeder just a few minutes ago so I decided to do some research about them…
    Wonderful to discover new things! Thank you for expanding my knowledge of birds.
    Although we haven’t seen them yet, we’ve had a small dark blue bird (our neighbors say they fly up north from Mexico, but I haven’t been able to find out any information about them. They start appearing sometime in June.
    On a funny note, we were late filling the hummingbird feeders and a few attempted to “feed” on our decorative tree on the deck (the lights look like little flowers).

    • Hi Gail, thanks for your comment! I love hearing about all the birds that come to people’s feeders. 🙂 The nuthatch is such a sweet little bird. I love how they forage upside down on trees. I wonder what the small dark blue bird visiting you might be. I hope you keep seeing them! All the best, Jenna.

  2. Our back yard in north-central Arkansas is a haven for wild birds. Nuthatches congregate with titmice, gold finches, hairy and downy woodpeckers, pileated and red-bellied woodpeckers, yellow-bellied woodpeckers, northern cardinals, eastern bluebirds, blue jays, mourning doves, summer tanagers, and a host of other back-yard featered friends. We feed all of them suet and black-oil sunflower seeds. The woodpeckers and bluejays favor the suet, while the rest gobble up the seeds. They are such a pleasure to watch. We also have hummers, but they are very seasonal, coming around in late spring and staying until around October before flying south. Enjoyed your article here on the nuthatches. I love their little ank-ank-ank call.

    • Hi Frank! Your backyard sounds like a dream with all those birds! We have a lot of the same species where I’m living in New Brunswick, Canada. That said, I don’t see many in my backyard. I especially love northern cardinals and blue jays – they have such beautiful colours. Thanks for commenting and letting me hear about your lovely backyard birds. All the best, Jenna

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