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Illinois hunting and fishing

A tiny red-breasted nuthatch easily slips inside a cage protecting a peanut feeder from squirrels and starlings. Photos by Chris Young.

Feathered travelers a new sight for local eyes

November 30, 2012 at 06:38 AM

The State Journal-Register



The tiny visitors aren’t the least bit shy.

At backyard bird feeders, the red-breasted nuthatch is making itself right at home, paying little attention even to those filling feeders nearby.

The red-breasted nuthatch normally spends most of its life north of Illinois, living in pine forests, far from people. They very rarely nest in Illinois, according to “Birds of Illinois” by Sheryl DeVore, Steven Bailey and Gregory Kennedy.

But this year, a lack of food in their home range has pushed the nuthatch and other birds that feed on seeds produced by pinecones further south than usual.

It’s called an irruption (not eruption) year, when numbers of a particular species suddenly go up.

“We’ve had a pretty good flight of coniferous birds this year,” said H. David Bohlen, assistant curator of zoology at the Illinois State Museum. “There are a lot of pine siskins around, and we’ve also had red and white-winged crossbills around.

“Most of the crossbills blew through, but the siskins are coming to feeders, and so are the red-breasted nuthatches.”

In northern Illinois, Bohlen said a few evening grosbeaks and common redpolls have been reported. In central Illinois, cedar waxwings and robins are plentiful right now.

A more diverse bunch

Red-breasted nuthatches nest mostly in conifers.

“About every other year we get a fairly good flight of them,” Bohlen said. “This year seems to be better than most years.”

Bohlen said red-breasted nuthatches can often be found at Oak Ridge Cemetery in pine trees.
“And a lot of them go to feeders,” he said.

Wade Kammin, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited, 1930 S. MacArthur Blvd., said his customers have
reported seeing them on peanut feeders.

“They are a lot of fun because they are very brave,” he said of the tiny birds that measure only about four-and-a-half inches long. “If you are standing near a feeder, they are not at all shy about coming right up to you and grabbing a peanut and flying off with it. Sometimes I think these birds that nest in isolated conifer areas have never seen people before.”

The white-breasted nuthatch is the more common cousin, residing in Illinois year-round. It is a little larger with a distinctive “yank, yank” call.

The red-breasted nuthatch’s call is a quieter, more nasal version described as sounding like a toy horn.

Kammin said many birds key on high-fat foods with lots of energy in the winter months.

“We do tend to focus on foods that are even higher in fat, like peanuts, suet and a variety of different nuts,” he said. “That can help pull even more of the nuthatches and chickadees and maybe the Carolina wrens that don’t hit feeders hard during the summer, but they need that fatty source of food during the winter time.”

A diversity of foods can help attract a diversity of species, he said.

“And more feeders can keep birds from crowding each other,” he said. “Spacing them through the yard can help everyone get more of a meal each day.”

Bohlen said he is interested in hearing about birds that have pushed even farther outside their normal range.

“If you have evening grosbeaks, let someone know about it,” he said. “I haven’t seen them (in central Illinois) since the 1980s.”

Bohlen’s number is 782-6697.

“Typically, they come to someone’s feeder in the country and you never know about it,” he said.

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.

Illinois hunting and fishing

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