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Red-breasted Nuthatch Life History


ForestsRed-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.Back to top


InsectsIn 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.Back to top


Nest Placement

CavityFemale 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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-8 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
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.
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Bark ForagerRed-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.Back to top


Low Concern

Red-breasted Nuthatches are common, and their populations have increased throughout most of their range between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 20 million and rates them 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. 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.

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Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye (1988). The Birder's Handbook. A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, Including All Species That Regularly Breed North of Mexico. Simon and Schuster Inc., New York, NY, USA.

Ghalambor, Cameron K. and Thomas E. Martin. (1999). Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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