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Red-Breasted Nuthatch: A Bird Necessary to Insect Pest Control

November 29, 2021

The red-breasted nuthatch is an interesting bird that fills many ecological roles in the ecosystem. It can serve as prey for other birds, it provides food for small mammals, and it even disperses seeds! The red-breasted nuthatch feeds on insects and fruit which helps to maintain a healthy ecosystem. They are also known to be pretty curious birds and can be frequently seen at bird feeders.


Nuthatch Behavior

Nuthatches are common throughout the United States and Canada. They can be found in a variety of habitats, including coniferous, deciduous, and mixed woodlands, as well as along forest margins near rivers or open spaces such as parks. Nuthatches climb up and down trees' trunks and branches in order to forage. It may capture airborne insects in the air. It may hide food items in bark alcoves. Red-breasted nuthatches are capable of climbing down tree trunks headfirst. This helps them to discover food that other birds overlook.

During the breeding season, red-breasted nuthatches are extremely territorial. If there are plenty of resources, pairs may defend food domains throughout the winter. The displays made by males to attract females are comparable to those used in courtship. Males may intimidate others by bowing their wings, holding their tails erect, and ruffling the feathers on the crest of their heads. They may also drop their head and swing their tail back and forth. Red-breasted nuthatches may be found in huge flocks with a variety of species throughout the winter.

When food is in short supply in the north, large numbers of red-breasted nuthatches may migrate south for a time. An irruption is a migratory phenomenon in which red-breasted nuthatches move south. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999a; Terres, 1982) In order to provide a diverse diet for this species, they mix both insects and seeds. In the summer, it consumes mostly insects and spiders; in the winter, it eats many coniferous seed. The majority of or all young are fed on insects and spiders exclusively.

Related: How to Educate and Promote Environmental Awareness in 2021


Nuthatch Ecosystem Services

The red-breasted nuthatch is a unique and beautiful species that is critical for maintaining the ecosystem. They aid with seed dissemination and consume insects, ensuring there are enough food sources for other species. Red-breasted nuthatches may play an important role in forest tree seed dispersal. They gather seeds and store them in locations such as moist soil or against rocks where they can germinate and grow into trees.

Nuthatches, like other ground foragers, have an impact on populations of animals that eat them and the insects they consume. Red-breasted nuthatches eat a wide range of insect species, including beetles, wasps, and flies, which humans view as pests. (Adams and Morrison, 1993) The red-breasted nuthatches also help humans by consuming insects that may be harmful to their crops. In some areas, red-breasted nuthatch populations have been associated with outbreaks of mountain pine beetles. Pine beetle infestations are a serious threat to the forestry industry due to the death and damage of trees from this insect pest.

If birds like the Red-breasted Nuthatch vanished, we'd be knee-deep in insects. During the breeding season, birds consume 400-500 million tons of insects each year, according to a recent research. This is substantial because the Red-breasted Nuthatch's diet includes at least 50% agricultural pests. House Swift (Apus nipalensis) in China, and Evening Grosbeak (Hesperiphona vespertina) becomes a superhero during Spruce Budworm outbreaks across North America, providing biological control worth $1,820 per square kilometre. These ecological benefits can not be understated and we should value even the smallest species like the nuthatch.

Related: How Do Birds Provide Ecosystems Services?


Economic Value of the Nuthatch

Birds are technologically advanced, highly motivated, extremely efficient, and cost-effective insect pest controllers. Birds like to feed large, juicy insects to their young. Relatively few insects survive past the egg and small, young larval stages. By feeding on large, late stages of caterpillars, and on pupae and adults, birds become a key force in depleting insect populations. Many bird species take advantage of a pest outbreak by moving into the afflicted region, which is why they are such good outbreak detectors. Some invasions can boost local bird populations by up to 80 times.

In response to an insect infestation, birds may move their foraging areas and foraging actions. Many ground or shrub-dwelling birds might fly up into the canopy to eat when a large number of insects is discovered in the treetops. Birds can alter their diets to feed almost exclusively on an insect pest during an outbreak, if it becomes profitable for them to do so. Bird species vary in their diet and the insects they prefer as prey, although certain factors such as insect density, body size and nutritional content, ease of capture, palatability (presence of chemical defenses or parasites), and density of potential competitors all influence which insects birds consume. It would be hard to argue that humans can replace the competitive nature and efficiency of various bird species.

Consider how many eggs are consumed throughout the winter, from which the larva, when hatched, might be hard to eliminate. Once again, eradicating adult insects and larvae in the winter is far more significant than later, since they are generally the ones that lay eggs in the spring and continue the cycle. There are but few other birds that perform this task in the winter, and these two birds likewise guard their meals from locations where no other bird would search for it. The Chickadee pecks at the small buds and joints, loose bark of the tree where insects may hide, while the Nuthatch secures their food from the rough bark of the main trunk. It's also worth noting in favor of both of these birds that they are drawn to stay in one area and don't travel far, but instead work over one feeding ground continuously and thoroughly. (Sanderson, 1898)

In one year, insect infestations can cost farmers and foresters hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. Edward Forbush stated in 1921 that “forest and agricultural pests were reduced by 28% by birds resulting in savings of $444,000,000 in crop and timber losses.” The value of birds in current dollars is beyond our imagination. Their value is not just in their actual consumption of insect pests, but also in their role in keeping future outbreaks to a minimum.

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