Our backyard 3.5-inch, male red-breasted nuthatch is covered in pine resin.
For more than a week, feathers on his head and belly have been matted down and glisten in early morning sunlight. That means he is nest building, which is very rare in the United States.
The birds normally breed in coniferous forests across Canada and Alaska. A very small population attempts to breed in the northeast, said Tim Joyce, birdscaper and manager at Wild Birds Unlimited in Glenview.
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Both sexes work to excavate their nest, which can take 18 days, by pounding out a 2.5-inch wide and 8-inch deep hole in a tree, with the female doing more of the work. The female applies conifer resin to the inside and the male places it around the entrance to keep other birds out, sometimes applying it with a piece of bark in an amazing example of tool use. The birds fly directly into the nest, avoiding the dry sticky resin draped around the entrance.
My family has been lucky to have the two birds reside in or near our backyard from October to April for a couple of years. The birds normally doesn't venture here even during migration. However, due to a lack of pine cone seed produced in dense forest in Canada every five-seven years, they will travel south for food during those winters.
We have a large peanut feeder by our kitchen window, which they visit up to a 100 times a day -- grabbing a peanut and hiding it in backyard tree bark to eat later. The birds are cute, tiny, and have wonderful personalities. We routinely got them to eat peanuts, their favorite food, right out of our hands.
This year they are sticking around -- literally -- and their behavior has changed. The female has been missing and the male is extremely skittish and won't even visit the feeder if we are in the backyard.
Joyce said the birds are attempting to breed, but there are few successful hatchings of their half-inch-long eggs in the United States.
"Get your camera ready if you see fledglings -- that would be a big deal to birders and should be reported," Joyce said.