Getting to Know: Red-breasted Nuthatches

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Red-breasted Nuthatches are tiny bundles of energy that can be difficult to see at first, and hard to take your eyes off of once you've spotted them. These active "upside-down birds" are a favourite among backyard birders due to their high-energy antics, nonchalant attitude in the presence of humans, and willingness to accept food from hand. In today's blog we'll get to know these boisterous avian acrobats as we discuss key ID features, habitat and nesting habits, diet, and more. 

Red-breasted Nuthatch feeding on WBU Cranberry Cylinder

Identification & Sounds
Red-breasted Nuthatches are small (about 4" in length), plump-bodied birds with short legs, and short but broad wings. They have relatively large heads, and long, slightly upturned bills used for "hacking" open nuts & seeds -  hence the name "nut-hatch". Red-breasted Nuthatches are a lovely blue-grey colour over much of their bodies, and sport very defined facial markings; a black or dark grey crown (with males having a darker crown than females) and stripe through the eye, separated by a dramatic white stripe over the eye, and white throat. The underparts that give Red-breasted Nuthatches their name, are a rich cinnamon colour, and often paler in females. The sounds of the Red-breasted Nuthatch are like no other. Their songs - most often sung by single males - are a fast series of nasally, almost horn-like notes that resemble yank yank. Songs consist of 6 or more of these notes each, and can be sung up to 16 times per minute. These songs are sometimes sung by mated males and females who are defending their territory, though the tune is much harsher. The nasal yank note is also used as a call for a means of communication between both males and females, and can be vocalized quickly to sound like a vibrating trill. This sped up version is often used during nest excavating and egg-laying. Listen to the sounds of the Red-breasted Nuthatch here

Red-breasted Nuthatch applying sap to the nest box entrance

Red-breasted Nuthatch nest & eggs

Habitat & Nesting
Red-breasted Nuthatches can be found year-round in all the provinces across Canada, taking preference preferring to spruce-fir forests for foraging and nesting, but can also be found in mixed-wood forests. Though they are a mostly resident or short-migrant species, Red-breasted Nuthatches have irruptive years and move southward in large numbers when cone crops are low on their breeding grounds. This season, 2020/2021, is an irruptive season for Red-breasted Nuthatches and we have been seeing an influx of individuals that began back in September of last year. When it comes to nesting, Red-breasted Nuthatches are primary cavity-nesters, meaning that they build their nests in cavities they excavate themselves. The location chosen for nesting is often in a decaying tree or stump, in an area with an abundance of insects for eating and raising their young. The cavity ranges from 2.5" to 8" deep, and can take up to 18 days to complete depending on size and weather conditions. While many nuthatches excavate their own cavities, some may also use existing cavities and nest boxes (shown above). Once the excavation is complete, the female Red-breasted Nuthatch constructs a bed grasses, pine needles, and bark strips, and lines it with soft feathers, fur, or fine grasses. Both male and female Red-breasted Nuthatches apply conifer resin around the entrance of the cavity throughout the nesting period, sometimes using bark as a tool for application. The reason for this behaviour is unknown, but one plausible theory is that it is to help deter predators from entering the cavity. Within the cavity, Red-breasted Nuthatches raise one brood per nesting season that ranges from 2-8 eggs in size. Eggs are .7" long and .5" wide, and are white, cream, or pinkish white in colour with reddish-brown speckles. The incubation period lasts approximately 12 days, with young being fed steadily on a diet of insects & other arthropods. The young are ready to fledge between two to three weeks, and rely on care and guidance from their parents for several weeks after. 

Diet & Foraging Habits
If you've watched nuthatches forage for their meals, you have likely noticed that their movements are a little different than most birds. Nuthatches are able to climb trees in all directions, including downward. When descending, they do so head down, and typically perform quick, zig-zag maneuvers, while keeping a tight grip with the extra large claws located on their backward facing toes (one on each foot). As with many of our native bird species, the diet of the Red-breasted Nuthatch varies depending on the season and food availability. They rely mostly on live prey when it's warm, and seeds when it's cold. In the spring and summer months, they primarily feed on arthropods including spiders, beetles, ants, and caterpillars found in trees, but have been known to catch prey in the air on occasion. Adult nuthatches will also eat some seed during this time, but raise their young on a diet of insects & other arthropods. In late summer and early fall, Red-breasted Nuthatches begin to collect and cache (store) seeds & some insects for winter when inclement weather does not allow for foraging, or when food sources are scarce. Conifer seeds are their preferred foods for caching, but they will also take advantage of handouts from bird feeders. Most of their cache sites are in the bark of trees, but they'll also hide food under shingles, siding, or in wicker furniture. They will also use small crevices in trees or other surfaces like deck railings to wedge large nuts or seeds into, and "hack" them into more manageable pieces for eating. 

Red-breasted Nuthatch feeding on SuperSuet from WBU Modern Rustic Tail Prop Suet Feeder

Attracting to Feeders
Red-breasted Nuthatches are dependable feeder visitors once they've caught on to good grub being offered, with many even accepting food being offered by hand. Lucky for us, they aren't too picky either! Red-breasted Nuthatches will visit feeders for black oil sunflower seed, safflower seed, peanuts out of shell, sunflower chips, tree nuts, Bark Butter Bits, and mealworms, with their favourites being peanuts, mealworms, sunflower chips, and Bark Butter Bits. If you're looking to give hand feeding a shot, the latter four choices would be the best options to go with as they hold the highest palatability value to nuthatches. These choices can be offered in the form of loose seed, or long-lasting seed cylinders. In addition to seed, nuts, and other goodies listed above, Red-breasted Nuthatches are quick to devour nutrient-rich & high calorie suet like SuperSuet & Bark Butter. Suet can be offered in a standard cage-style suet feeder, or a Tail Prop Feeder, though they seem to prefer the sturdier Tail Prop Feeders and will even sneak a bite from one side while a woodpecker is dining on the other. 

We want to see your photos of and hear about your experiences with Red-breasted Nuthatches in your own yard. Have you had families in your yard? What foods do you offer them? Share your stories in our Facebook group for a chance to be featured on the Wild Birds Unlimited Barrie & Newmarket pages!

Happy trails!
- Shayna

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