Food Storage by the Chickadee, titmouse, nuthatch and blue jay


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: Food storage by the chickadee and other birds that visit our feeders.

This column is divided into two sections

Section 1 contains a copy of the column as it appeared in the Post Standard in Syracuse on the above date.

Section 2 contains additional information for the reader who is interested in learning more about the storing of food


Dear Mr. Burtt: My chickadees always fly away from the feeder after they pick up a sunflower seed. Only now and then do they shell one. Are they storing the seed? -R.C., Canastota.

Dear R.C.: Yes, chickadees do fly away with seed to be stored for later use. However, when they come to the feeder to get a seed to eat, they must also fly away to a nearby tree to hack open the seed. So, in either case, they will take a seed and fly away with it.

The sunflower seed has such a hard shell that chickadees cannot crush the husk in their tiny bill. They must hammer the point of the bill into the sunflower seed to split open the husk. The seed must be firmly held while the hammering is done. They can't do this very well right at the feeder.

To hold the seed, the chickadee takes it to a nearby tree and finds a twig of the right size so that its toes can wrap around it. Then while it is holding tight to the twig, it puts the seed under the toes of both feet so that the seed is held securely.
It stabs its bill into the sunflower seed and opens the husk to expose the nutmeat which it eats.

On the other hand, when it flies away with a seed to be stored, it will not hammer on it, but will push the seed under a piece of bark or into a crack or hollow in a tree. It may poke a seed into a cluster of pine needles or just push it into the ground. It stores each seed in a different place and sometimes quite far from the feeder.

The chickadee remembers all the locations. It frequently checks to see if the seed has been stolen. If so, it replaces the seed. In this way food will always be available.

When the chickadee flies away with a seed, watch to see what it does. If it flies out of sight or pokes the seed into the bark, it is storing it. If it stops and hammers the seed held in its toes, it is eating. The titmouse is closely related to the chickadee and has very similar feeding habits.

CAPTION: When a chickadee flies away from a feeder carrying a sunflower seed, it is usually taking it to a convenient perch where it removes the husk and eats the nutmeat inside. In the fall and winter it will often be taking the seed to hide it away for later use.

The December Feeder Survey starts next Sunday Dec 5.
If you need instructions, write to me or go to


Another bird that stores food for later use is the blue jay. When it finds a good supply of seed it almost seems compelled to store some away. The blue jay will fill its throat with sunflower seeds until the bulge is quite pronounced. All these seeds are carried away to be buried or to be dropped into a hollow in a tree.

Mark Twain was amused by a jay that stored seeds in a hole in the roof of a cabin in the woods. The seeds dropped some 8 feet to the cabin floor where the bird could never retrieve them. Nevertheless, the jay kept on storing acorns and other seeds there!
Another familiar bird that stores food from our feeders is the white-breasted nuthatch. It eats both plant and animal food. Most of its insect food is found in the bark of trees. There it scurries about on a tree trunk, sometimes right side up and quite often walking down the tree trunk with its head down and its tail up as in the photograph. Its motions are so rapid and sure-footed that it almost seems as if gravity doesn't act on the nuthatch at all!

Woodpeckers and brown creepers always move around on the trunk with their head up and with the tail braced against the tree for support. The nuthatch does not use its tail for a brace, but relies upon its strong and rather long toes to hold it in position.

( Courtesy of Jack Bartholmai of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin )

Some of the popular names used for this bird in the past came from the way it moved about on the tree. It has been called "topsy turvy bird," "upside down bird," "devil-down-head" and "tree mouse."

As for storing food, it takes sunflower seeds away and puts them in crevices in the bark of trees. It often stores pieces of suet in such a spots too.

When it comes to eating the sunflower seed, like the chickadee, it is unable to crush a sunflower seed and must split the husk with its pointed bill. Instead of holding the seed in its toes as does the chickadee, it wedges the seed tightly into a crevice in the bark of a tree. Once the seed is firmly held in the bark, the nuthatch stabs the husk with its sharp bill to remove the husk so the nut meat inside becomes available.

This habit is responsible for the name "nuthatch." Members of the nuthatch family are found in Europe and Asia. Early English people were impressed with the way this bird wedged nuts and seeds into crevices in the bark of trees.

There the bird hacked the seed open with its strong bill. They called the bird the "nuthack." the French used the word "notehache." When pronounced, this French word does sounds a bit like "nuthatch", which has come to be the name used by Americans. The ancient Greek writer Aristotle even wrote about its habit of "hacking open nuts"

If you watch the nuthatch at your feeder, generally you will observe that it does not eat at the feeder, but takes the seed away. Watch it with your binoculars to see if it does indeed wedge the food item before splitting it open or whether it stores the food for later use.

The Syracuse Christmas Bird Count will be held on Saturday, December 18th,
It is not too late for people to participate. Anyone willing to help us out can contact Kevin McGann at (315) 635-7013 or via email at

We still have some teams that can use an extra person and some potentially productive birding areas that can stand to have additional coverage. As usual, birders of all skill levels are welcome to join in.

There is a $5 participation fee for each participant. All persons under age 18 may participate for free. The money goes to the National Audubon Society, and it is used to process and disseminate all of the data that is collected.

Unfortunately, there is no rain date and volunteers must be willing to brave any weather that comes.