Red-breasted Nuthatch forages on deer's back

TitleRed-breasted Nuthatch forages on deer's back
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1969
AuthorsJr. JLTate
JournalJack Pine Warbler

It is not uncommon to find a mixed group of Black-capped chickadees (Parus atricapillus) and Red-breated Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) foraging on the ground and low in the trees during winter and early spring. Many people have noted the tameness of such groups. Occasionally I have observed them foraging in the disturbed leaf litter where I have walked. On 9 April 1968, at 1017 hours in Reese's Bog, Cheboygan County, Michigan, I was standing quietly at the edge of a small stream. A group of chickadees, nuthatches, Slate-colored Juncos (Junco hymalis) and Tree Sparrows (Spizella arborea) were foraging on the ground, around my feet and low in the brush. Two female white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) walked out of the edge of the forest 25 meters from me. They began browsing, unaware of my presence. A part of the flock of birds, several chickadees and at least three nuthatches, flew to the deer. Almost immediately one of the nuthatches flew to the shoulders of the smaller deer. It probed in the hairs on the deer's back with its bill. The deer did not react noticably to the presence of the bird. The larger doe noticed me as I raised my binoculars. She ran, causing the smaller doe to flee also. The nuthatch flew back to the rest of the flock which was foraging nearby. The situation reminded me of the oxpeckers (Buphagus spp.) which are adapted to feed on ticks from the backs of African cattle and big game. I have found a greater quantity of deer sign, and seen more deer in the bog this spring than in previous years. The high deer population may have contributed to the establishment of this unusual foraging behavior of the nuthatch. Considering, however, that my observation of the act was quite fortuitous, it is possible that such interrelationships occur with some regularity.