Little Tin Horns

On one of my first visits to the Mahoosuc region, almost 30 years ago now, I watched a Red-breasted Nuthatch hiding sunflower seeds in the crevices of a massive white pine growing alongside Hutchinson Pond. As a flatlander, it felt a long way from Mississippi where I had grown up. The “yank, yank, yank” of that little nuthatch was like a tune played on a little, tin horn. It has stuck in my head to this day and is how I learned to identify the difference between the Red-breasted Nuthatch compared to the White-breasted Nuthatch who’s call is a more nasal, “Quank, quank, quank.” Both of these species occur commonly in the Mahoosuc region. The Red-breasted Nuthatch prefers fir and hemlock forest while the White-breasted seems to occur more widely. Both species come regularly to feeders.

A distinct behavioral characteristic of all nuthatches is that they perch and climb in a head-down position. They use their wedged-shaped bills to pry or hammer open seed and to probe tree bark for insects and spiders. Both nuthatches can be found traveling in loose, mixed flocks, especially in the winter, along with chickadees, kinglets and downy woodpeckers.

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The White-breasted is the larger of the two. It has grey and black wings and back. Its face is white with a black cap extending down to the back. Its throat, belly and flanks are white, but it has a rusty, brown wash under its tail. They may blend in with the chickadees at your feeder if you aren’t watching closely.

                The Red-breasted Nuthatch has a gun-metal grey back and wings. The top of the bird’s head is complicated in appearance and is black on top bordered by white stripes on both sides. The bird has a broad, black eye-stripe with grey/white cheeks and throat. Its belly and sides are a rusty red.


According to Birds of North America Online that the Red-breasted Nuthatch is known to collect and smear sticky sap around the holes they excavate and use for nesting. Red-breasted Nuthatches are said to be more nomadic, with populations visiting into one area for a time only to move on to another region later. Therefore, you may hear this bird and its little tin horn more some years compared to others.  (Information sourced from

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust. Mahoosuc Land Trust celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit us at Valentine Farm, 162 North Road Bethel, ME or at To learn about an upcoming event or to contact James send your emails to