On the wild side—January, 2013
by Tina Mitchell
Red-breasted Nuthatches are diminutive, active birds of north woods and western mountains, although they can appear much further east and south during some winters. Red-breasted Nuthatches have very short tails and almost no neck; the body appears a bit barrel-chested. With a blue-gray back, this little nuthatch sports ruddy underparts that range from rusty red to a barely noticeable pale wash of color. Its wide black eye strip makes it easy to identify, even with just a quick glance. Males (photo, left) and females (photo, right) look very similar, although the female shows a considerably paler chest and belly. As is true with all nuthatches, Red-breasteds walking along trees can orient themselves in pretty much any plane—horizontal, vertical, upside-down, head up, head down, all catawampus… It’s hard to watch them scamper about without smiling. Climbing around at these many different angles provides a greater opportunity to find food in bark crevices overlooked by species that only climb up trees, such as woodpeckers.
Its habitat can be described in 1 word: Conifers! Forests of cone-bearing trees provide the preferred foods for Red-breasteds in the form of seeds in cones and a variety of insects that feed on the conifers. This nuthatch’s diet consists of pine, spruce, and other conifer seeds and insects including beetles, wasps, caterpillars, and any insect eggs they can find. They’ll also come to yard seed feeders, showing a special penchant for sunflower seeds. Once, I even watched one on our thistle feeder; after eating upright like any other bird, it pivoted around the perch and started feeding, upside down, from the port below! (When you’re a nuthatch, gravity doesn’t always limit your options.) They break larger food morsels apart by wedging them into bark crevices and chipping smaller pieces off or by pounding seeds open with their thin but mighty beaks.
This hammering behavior led to both the common and genus names of the nuthatch. The U. S. has 3 nuthatch species besides the Red-breasted, all found in the genus Sitta: the ubiquitous White-breasted, the western Pygmy, and the southeastern Brown-headed. For all 4 species, the term “nuthatch” may have arisen from a corruption of “nuthack” (or, some say, “nuthatchet”), referring to this feeding behavior. Even the genus name of our nuthatches, Sitta, derives from a Greek word for a bird that pecked on a tree. The Red-breasted Nuthatch’s species name, canadensis, come from Latin meaning “belonging to Canada,” referring to what originally was thought to be its primary year-round range.
Breeding for Red-breasteds begins later than for many resident species in Colorado—typically from late May into July. Since they rely so heavily on conifer forests, these birds use habitats up to timberline. Snowmelt occurs later at these high elevations, leading to delayed seed development and insect hatches that are critical for feeding young—likely a key factor in their late breeding start. As cavity nesters, they readily use old nest cavities pounded out by woodpeckers. In areas with few cavities and with sufficient soft, rotten trees, though, they can excavate their own nest holes. (I’m sorry to report that they do not readily use nestboxes, unlike the closely related western subspecies of White-breasted Nuthatch. I’ve watched and waited and hoped for many years, all in vain…) The adults smear sticky pine pitch around the entrance hole, possibly to try to prevent other creatures from entering. Adults avoid getting stuck in this pitch by flying—more like diving, I’d say—straight into the hole. Clutches contain 5 – 8 (typically, 6) eggs, which hatch after 12 or 13 days. Both parents feed the young a diet of insects and spiders. Young leave the nest after 18 to 21 days, although they still depend on their parents for another 2 weeks after fledging.
A frenetic package of energy and movement at your feeder, Red-breasted Nuthatches are birds of few words—in fact, for the most part, just one. Their thin, drawn-out, nasal, slightly whiny yaaaaank-yaaaaaank calls resonate like tiny toy horns being honked in the treetops. You can hear a snippet of this easy-to-identify song and learn more about this little dynamo here.