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Red-breasted Nuthatch

Sitta canadensis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: SITTIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

An intense bundle of energy at your feeder, Red-breasted Nuthatches are tiny, active birds of north woods and western mountains. These long-billed, short-tailed songbirds travel through tree canopies with chickadees, kinglets, and woodpeckers but stick to tree trunks and branches, where they search bark furrows for hidden insects. Their excitable yank-yank calls sound like tiny tin horns being honked in the treetops.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.3 in
11 cm
Wingspan
7.1–7.9 in
18–20 cm
Weight
0.3–0.5 oz
8–13 g
Relative Size
Noticeably smaller than a White-breasted Nuthatch
Other Names
  • Sita canadiense, Saltapolos canadiense, Trepador Canadiense (Spanish)
  • Sittelle du Canada, Sittelle à poitrine rousse, Le torchepot du Canada (French)
  • Canada Nuthatch (English)

Cool Facts

  • The Red-breasted Nuthatch collects resin globules from coniferous trees and plasters them around the entrance of its nest hole. It may carry the resin in its bill or on pieces of bark that it uses as an applicator. The male puts the resin primarily around the outside of the hole while the female puts it around the inside. The resin may help to keep out predators or competitors. The nuthatch avoids the resin by diving directly through the hole.
  • During nest building, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is aggressive, chasing away other hole-nesting birds such as the House Wren, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Downy Woodpecker. A particularly feisty nuthatch may go after Yellow-rumped Warblers, House Finches, Violet-Green Swallows, and Cordilleran Flycatchers.
  • Red-breasted Nuthatches migrate southward earlier than many irruptive species. They may begin in early July and may reach their southernmost point by September or October.
  • Red-breasted Nuthatches sometimes steal nest-lining material from the nests of other birds, including Pygmy Nuthatches and Mountain Chickadees.
  • The oldest known Red-breasted Nuthatch was 7 years, 6 months old.

Habitat


Forest

Red-breasted Nuthatches live mainly in coniferous forests of spruce, fir, pine, hemlock, larch, and western red cedar. Eastern populations use more deciduous woods, including aspen, birch, poplar, oak, maple, and basswood. During irruptive winters, nuthatches may use habitats such as orchards, scrub, parks, plantations, and shade trees.

Food


Insects

In summer, Red-breasted Nuthatches eat mainly insects and other arthropods such as beetles, caterpillars, spiders, ants, and earwigs, and they raise their nestlings on these foods. In fall and winter they tend to eat conifer seeds, including seeds they cached earlier in the year. During outbreaks of spruce budworm, a forest pest, Red-breasted Nuthatches respond strongly to the plentiful food supply. They also eat from feeders, taking peanuts, sunflower seeds, and suet. When given the choice they tend to select the heaviest food item available; if these are too large to eat in one piece they typically jam them into bark and then hammer them open.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–8 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.7 in
1.5–1.7 cm
Egg Width
0.4–0.5 in
1.1–1.3 cm
Incubation Period
12–13 days
Nestling Period
18–21 days
Egg Description
White, creamy, or pinkish white and speckled with reddish brown.
Condition at Hatching
Naked and helpless.
Nest Description

Both sexes excavate the nest, but the female does more than the male. Excavation can take up to 18 days and yields a cavity between 2.5 and 8 inches deep. The female then builds a bed of grass, bark strips, and pine needles and lines it with fur, feathers, fine grasses or shredded bark. Both males and females apply conifer resin to the entrance, sometimes applying it with a piece of bark, a remarkable example of tool use.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Female Red-breasted Nuthatches usually choose the nest site, though males without mates may begin excavating several cavities at once in an attempt to attract a female. They may reuse existing holes in trees, but they rarely use nest boxes. Red-breasted Nuthatches often use aspen trees when available, as these trees have softer wood than many conifers. Nests are usually built in completely dead trees, dead parts of live trees, and trees with broken tops.

Behavior


Bark Forager

Red-breasted Nuthatches move quickly and in any direction across tree trunks and branches. When moving downward they typically zigzag, keeping their grip by relying on the large claw on their one backward-pointing toe on each foot. Red-breasted Nuthatches are aggressive birds that sometimes dominate larger birds at feeders. Nuthatches are among the few non-woodpeckers that excavate their own nest cavities from solid wood. Agitated males may call at each other while pointing their heads up, fluttering their wings, and swiveling back and forth. Males court females by turning their backs to them, singing, and swaying from side to side with crest feathers raised, or by flying together in an exaggerated display of slowly fluttering wings or long glides. Males feed females while the females excavate nest cavities. Red-breasted Nuthatches join foraging flocks of chickadees and other small songbirds. Nuthatches sometimes store seeds and insects to help them get through the winter, shoving the food into bark crevices and often covering them with pieces of bark, lichen or pebbles. They typically fly only short distances at a time, with an undulating pattern.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Red-breasted Nuthatches are common and their populations increased throughout most of their range between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 20 million with 64 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S. and 62 percent in Canada. They rate a 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. As with all birds that nest in holes in trees, it’s important to leave some dead wood (dead trees or dead parts of trees) standing in forests to provide places for nests.

Credits

Range Map Help

Red-breasted Nuthatch Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident, short-distance migrant, or irruptive species. Northernmost populations migrate south each year, but other populations may not migrate at all. Red-breasted Nuthatches can be irruptive, moving southward in great numbers in years when cone production is poor on their breeding grounds. This happens on a roughly 2-year cycle, and in some years Red-breasted Nuthatches show up as far south as the Gulf Coast.

Backyard Tips

Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. Make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

You can find Red-breasted Nuthatches by listening for their nasal, yammering call or for the sounds of a foraging flock of chickadees and other birds: nuthatches are often in attendance. Look along trunks and branches of trees for a bird wandering up, down, and sideways over the bark, and keep your eyes peeled for the Red-breasted Nuthatch’s bold black-and-white face pattern.

Get Involved

Keep track of the Red-breasted Nuthatches at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

Migratory patterns of Red-breasted Nuthatches and other birds revealed by eBird

Check out our resources on attracting cavity-nesting birds and setting up a nest box for small songbirds such as nuthatches. Then report any nesting activity to NestWatch

Help track the large-scale movements of Red-breasted Nuthatches by reporting your sightings to eBird

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Red-breasted Nuthatch from Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds (1948)