Nuthatches are commonly found patronizing backyard birdfeeders throughout much of their vast natural habitats. From the coasts of California, to Algeria, to China, the Nuthatch’s gregarious yammering voice can be heard as it forages for the nuts and seeds from which it gets its name. Being such a common sight at feeders means that the Nuthatch is a favorite for many birdwatchers. Add to this the boisterously charming personality of these little birds and you have yourself a recipe for a bird that is deeply beloved by birdwatchers and nature appreciators around the world.
Tiny but mighty, most Nuthatches are scarcely larger than five inches or so in length. And yet, their calls are often loud enough to lead birders directly to them. The Nuthatch is a small bird, but it is far from shy. In this article, we will examine the incredible personality of the Nuthatch as well as the many fascinating lessons that this bird can impart upon us. We will also take a look at various mythological and folktale traditions concerning Nuthatches.
Nuthatch Symbolism and Meaning
Nuthatches are known for spending quite a lot of their time upside down. Nimble and quick, Nuthatches creep up and down the trunks of trees within their backyard and forest habitats. They are often seen foraging upside down and may represent dexterity, adaptability, or changes in perspective. The Nuthatch represents the idea of turning a situation on its head in order to gain perspective. (1)
As we discussed above, some Nuthatches are known for being gregarious and loud. These Nuthatch species may represent confidence, communication, or positivity. Other Nuthatch species are more soft-spoken, however they still tend to be quite outgoing and courageous. Despite their small size, Red-breasted Nuthatches are often fearless enough to come quite close to human observers. (2)
On the subject of sociability, Nuthatches are known to frequently mix and mingle with other birds in mixed flocks. Birds participate in mixed flocks for a number of reasons. One is safety. Beyond the idea of “safety in numbers,” which doesn’t always hold true since large groups often attract more predators, is the fact that many more communicative species give the flock the added benefit of alarm calls. Chickadees, for example, give information-dense alarm calls which allow the other birds in their flock to notice, assess, and react to potential dangers. Furthermore, mixed flocks often come together in places where food is abundant and with species who eat a variety of foods. Woodpeckers, for example, will flock with chickadees despite the fact that they have completely different approaches to foraging. In the case of Nuthatches, these birds are often found as “satellite species” which participate in flocks made up of chickadees and titmice. The presence of these other birds allows the Nuthatch to focus on foraging rather than vigilantly watching for potential dangers. Nuthatches may represent sociability, cooperation, teamwork, or community. The Nuthatch is a great symbol of the peace of mind that a strong sense of community can offer to those who participate in and are supported by said community. (3)
Nuthatches are often seen snatching seeds from feeders by birdwatchers. Despite its tiny stature, the Nuthatch will return to the feeder over and over again, retrieving seed after seed after seed. A birdwatching newbie might wonder “How can such a little bird eat so many seeds in such a short time?” The Nuthatch is not eating the seeds, though. At least, it isn’t eating them yet. One habit that Nuthatches often exhibit is a tendency to cache food. When they find an abundant source of a preferred food, Nuthatches will return to it as many times as possible and simply hide their finds in crevices in tree bark and other such nooks and crannies. Then, when the Nuthatch is in need of food, it retrieves its prize. Because of this neat little habit, Nuthatches may be connected with preparedness, industriousness, forethought, and planning. (4)
The name “Nuthatch” actually comes from “nuthack” which refers to the Nuthatch’s feeding behavior. Nuthatches are known to jam nuts into crevices in the bark of trees and then hack away at them with their bills. From tough shelled nuts to softer seeds, the Nuthatch’s focused “hacking” is usually enough to crack the shell. Nuthatches may represent problem solving, looking beneath the surface of things, or a blunt straight-forward approach to life. (5)
Male and female Nuthatches are largely monogamous and will stay in pairs together all year long. In fact, they are rarely apart from one another and will defend their territory against other pairs. When they forage together, the female often assumes the role of “lookout” while the male searches for food. Once paired together, the male and female will often maintain vocal contact with each other so that they do not end up getting separated. Nuthatch pairs are also known to smear tree resin or even insects around the entrances of their nests as a chemical deterrent for predators and intruders. So, Nuthatches may represent strong relationships, companionship, protection, or the home. (6)
Nuthatch Native American Symbolism
The Nuthatch is a symbol of old age, longevity, wisdom, and health for the Navajo. Some tribes also associate the Nuthatch with medicine and healing. (7)
According to some sources, the Cherokee once associated the Nuthatch with thievery, with traditions stating that the Nuthatch steals its nuts and seeds from the squirrel. Modern Cherokee scholars, however, dispute this association. Instead, they say that the Nuthatch is thought of as an industrious bird. (8)
In “The Bird Tribes,” a Cherokee story describing the Cherokee names for all manner of birds, as well as some of their associated traits and origins, the Nuthatch is said to be called “tsulie’na” which means “deaf.” This is likely due to the fact that Nuthatches allow humans to get quite close to them without fleeing. Their fearlessness is interpreted as obliviousness or a lack of hearing. (9)
Nuthatch Christianity Symbolism
Nuthatches are not particularly prominent within Christian symbolism. They do, however, provide important lessons regarding preparedness and work ethic. The following passage from Proverbs relates to the Nuthatch quite neatly.
“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: Which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, Provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: So shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man.”— Proverbs 6:6-11 (10)
While certainly not an ant, the Nuthatch knows a thing or two about gathering food and preparing for hard times by putting in the work. This passage is also a reminder that some of the smallest creatures in nature often have significant lessons to teach us.
Nuthatch Celtic Symbolism
I cannot find any concrete references to the Nuthatch in any particular Celtic myths or folklore sources. Birds in general are often connected with the Celtic concept of the “Otherworld.” They often appear in stories as symbols of fertility, magic, transitions, or witches.
Nuthatch in Dreams
Dreaming of a Nuthatch may indicate that the dreamer is looking for their “tribe.” A Nuthatch dream might speak to a sense of isolation or a desire to find a supportive social community. This is most distinctly true if the dreamer dreams of a lone Nuthatch or a Nuthatch that has been targeted by a predator.
Dreaming of a pair of Nuthatches may indicate that one’s relationship is providing a feeling of safety or comfort. Like Nuthatch pairs, which stick together both for breeding and for cooperative safety purposes, the dreamer may find that having a partner with whom to tackle life’s challenges can provide an incredible sense of support and relief.
Dreaming of a Nuthatch’s call might act as a reminder not to underestimate the power of one’s own voice. The Nuthatch might be small, but its voice can carry throughout the forest. What’s more, that bold voice can make the difference between life and death for a Nuthatch and its mate. So, make sure that you use your voice to its fullest potential. Be proud, be fearless, and make some noise!
Nuthatch Encounters and Omens
A Nuthatch encounter might represent a need for change in one’s perspective. Nuthatches are often spotted climbing down tree trunks upside down. What may look chaotic and difficult to our eyes is a natural and effective foraging method for the Nuthatch. Encountering a Nuthatch in this position is a great reminder to “zoom out” of your problems and try to see them from a few different angles.
A Nuthatch encounter in the vicinity of one’s home may indicate protection or the repelling of unwanted energies. This is because the Nuthatch is known to smear substances around its nest to deter would-be intruders.
Nuthatch in Mythology & Folklore
There are very few myths concerning the Nuthatch. In the following section, I will summarize the only such myth that I could find.
Native American Mythology:
According to one Mono Native American myth, Coyote and Falcon were camping together one day when Falcon decided to use a rock as his pillow. Overnight, the rock began to grow and eventually it was so high up in the sky that when Falcon awoke he found himself trapped. Coyote tried to save Falcon, but he could not. So, Coyote turned to the birds. Mockingbird was the chief of all the birds, so he assigned some of his subjects to try and retrieve Falcon. Mockingbird sent Nuthatch to rescue Falcon, but the rock was too high and Nuthatch could neither fly to its peak nor could he climb it. In the end, only Climbing Worm could scale the rock and rescue Falcon. (11)
Nuthatch Spirit Animal
If your spirit animal is the Nuthatch then you are likely hardworking, efficient, thoughtful, outgoing, and dependable. People with the Nuthatch as their spirit animal are good at making friends and get along with others easily. The Nuthatch spirit animal is outgoing and very brave both in social situations and in general. One of the reasons that the Nuthatch spirit animal is such a good friend is because it is so reliable. If the Nuthatch makes a commitment, you can be certain that it will see it through.
People with the Nuthatch as their spirit animal do not like to be alone. They may feel vulnerable or isolated when they do not have the company of at least one close companion to count on. The Nuthatch spirit animal is a team player who puts the needs of the many before its own needs.
Nuthatch Totem Animal
The Nuthatch totem animal is connected with preparation and foresight. People with the Nuthatch as their totem animal are wise enough to know that hard times can always lie just around the corner. The Nuthatch totem animal enjoys the good times more when it knows that the bad times are accounted for. People with the Nuthatch totem animal tend to be thrifty and shrewd. They trust their instincts and make good decisions without hesitation.
Nuthatch Power Animal
The Nuthatch power animal is associated with protection, ingenuity, and memory. Caching food in a million little crevices is a useless exercise that wastes energy unless the bird in question is smart enough to recall all of the locations of these hidden caches. The Nuthatch is a powerful symbol of how useful a strong memory can be.
Nuthatch Tattoo Meaning
A Nuthatch tattoo may represent perspective, balance, cooperation, community, protection, or bravery. Such a tattoo might be chosen to commemorate saving for a major purchase, like a house or a car. This is because stockpiling resources for something important is one of the Nuthatch’s special skills.
Whether you spot them creeping upside down along a tree, or foraging along with a flock of titmice, or making a few stops at your backyard feeder, the Nuthatch is a cheerful little bird whose abundant charisma effortlessly charms birdwatchers around the world!