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    Red-breasted Nuthatch Life History

    Habitat

    Habitat 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

    Food

    Food 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

    Nesting

    Nest Placement

    Nest 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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    Behavior

    Behavior 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

    Conservation

    Conservation Low ConcernRed-breasted Nuthatches are common and their populations increased throughout most of their range between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 20 million with 64% spending some part of the year in the U.S., and 62% in Canada. The species rates a 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Red-breasted nuthatch is not on the 2014 State of the Birds 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.Back to top

    Backyard Tips

    This species often comes to bird feeders. Find out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

    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 including plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

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    Credits

    Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

    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. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

    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.

    Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

    North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

    Partners in Flight. 2017. Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

    Sauer, J. R., J. E. Hines, J. E. Fallon, K. L. Pardieck, Jr. Ziolkowski, D. J. and W. A. Link. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, results and analysis 1966-2013 (Version 1.30.15). USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center 2014b. Available from http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/.

    Sibley, David Allen. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

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