Oct 31, 2014 | Featured Web Article

Species Profile: Red-breasted Nuthatch

Creeping along pine branches like a tiny mechanical toy, the red-breasted nuthatch is looking for seeds and for insects, spiders, and other edible morsels. Its small size and preference for northern coniferous forests may make it a less familiar sight to many backyard bird watchers.
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Creeping along pine branches like a tiny mechanical toy, the red-breasted nuthatch is looking for seeds and for insects, spiders, and other edible morsels. Its small size and preference for northern coniferous forests may make it a less familiar sight to many backyard bird watchers. However, when the natural food crop is poor in the red-breasted nuthatches' year-round range in the North and mountain areas of the East and West, these birds will venture south and to lower elevations in search of food. During these "invasion" years, red-breasted nuthatches can become familiar visitors at backyard feeding stations. Like other nuthatches, the red-breasted forages on trees by working its way from the top downward, often going all the way to the ground along the trunk before flying off to the high branches of another tree. Strong, long-toed feet with sharp claws help the nuthatch to maintain a grip on the tree bark, even when hanging upside-down.

How Do I Identify It?

This small nuthatch (4 ½ inches long) is not really red on its breast—it's more orange or rusty. Another key field mark is the bold black line through the eye, which both males and females show, though males are more richly colorful. This eyeline, the smaller size, and the male's rich rusty breast and belly help tell this nuthatch apart from the larger, more common white-breasted nuthatch. Male red-breasted nuthatches are black-headed and gray-backed while females are gray-headed and gray-backed. The call of the red-breasted nuthatch is a series of high-pitched nasal toots, which some bird watchers say sounds like a tiny tin horn. It also gives a rapid series of toots and squeaks when excited.

Where Do I Find It?

Though they will visit all kinds of trees, especially in winter, red-breasted nuthatches seem to prefer conifers of all types during most of the year, including during the breeding season. They are year-round residents in the northern forests from the Canadian Maritimes and New England to the mountain forests of the West as far as Alaska. In winter they can be found almost anywhere in the continental United States except for the Florida peninsula and South Texas. Any large stand of pines is worth checking in winter for red-breasted nuthatches.

What Can I Feed or Do to Attract It?

Planting conifers such as pines, spruces, hemlocks, or firs will be a welcome mat for these birds, though you may have to be patient until the trees grow large enough to produce the cones from which the nuthatches get seeds. They will also visit bird feeders, particularly for sunflower seeds and hearts, peanuts, suet, and suet dough. Their ability to cling makes it easy for them to visit any type of feeder. And it's always a good idea to have a well-maintained birdbath, since most of our backyard birds need water for drinking and bathing.

Where Does It Nest?

A mated pair will share the work of excavating a nesting cavity, then the female prepares the nest inside it using fine grasses, rootlets, and moss. They often spread sticky pine sap (or "pitch") around the nest cavity entrance to discourage other birds and creatures from entering. Four or more eggs are laid and incubated by the female for 12 days. The male feeds the female during incubation and both parents feed the nestlings until fledging day about three weeks later.

Excerpted from the regional backyard guidebooks by Bill Thompson, III, and the editors of Bird Watcher's Digest. View the entire series in our nature shop »

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