The red-breasted nuthatch was previously known as the Canada Nuthatch. Its proper name,
Sitta Canadensis, means nuthatch (Sitta in Greek) and Canadensis means strongly associated
with Canada. But we now know it as the Red-breasted nuthatch. Its territory extends far into
Canada and southward to the American southwest and to the southern Appalachians in the
east. It prefers to live in coniferous forests of spruce, fir, pine, hemlock and western red cedar.
These are little birds—about 4.5 inches in length and a bit more than a third of an ounce in
weight. The top of the head is black, bordered by a white stripe and a black stripe that extends
from the base of the bill through the eye to the back of the neck. The upperparts are a bluish
gray and the underparts are a rufous-cinnamon. The adult female is similar but colors are a bit
muted with the top of the head more of a dark gray-blue and the eye stripe is not as wide nor
as black as on the male. The underparts are a bit paler as well.
Like our white-breasted nuthatch, this one will climb head down on tree trunks while searching for insects and caching and retrieving seeds in winter. They will zigzag down the trunk using the large claw on the one backward-facing toe on each foot to grip the bark.
This nuthatch has a more musical song than its relatives. During courtship, the male turns his
back on the female, sways from side to side with his head high and his wings drooped and sings his musical song.
Though both excavate the nest, most of the work is done by the female. Nest cavities are excavated in tree snags, preferring this to using nest boxes. It may take 18 days to excavate the nest creating a cavity as much as 8 inches deep. The females will use grass, bark strips and pine needles to make a bed and then line the nest with fur, feathers and fine grass. The male collects conifer resin from live trees to smear around the cavity entrance. This may deter predators from entering the cavity. The female applies resin to the inside walls of the nest cavity. They carry the resin globules in their beak or on pieces of bark and use the bark to apply the resin. This bird knows how to use “tools.” The nuthatch avoids getting resin on its feathers by flying directly through the nest opening.
The female will lay 2 to 8 eggs and incubate them for 12-13 days. Both parents feed the nestlings, and the young fledge between 18 and 21 days.
In summertime, these nuthatches feast on insects and arthropods - beetles, caterpillars, spiders, ants and feed their nestlings these insects. When spruce budworms, a forest pest, are plentiful, nuthatches will feast. Later in fall and winter, their diet switches to conifer seeds. They will also come to your backyard feeders for peanuts, sunflower seeds and suet. The nuthatch is choosy about what to take. He will sort food by weight and always chooses the heavier food item over a lighter weight one. Typical for nuthatches, if the piece of food is too large, they will jam it into the bark of a tree and hammer it open or break it apart into smaller pieces.
The nuthatch pictured here was brought in covered with sap. After a bath and time to dry, he was moved to a flight cage. Each day his preening improved his feathers and then it was time to return to the wild.
Tri County Wildlife Care, a local nonprofit started in 1994, is dedicated to the rescue and
rehabilitation of our native wildlife and helping our community live in balance with wildlife.
They envision a world where wildlife and people thrive together. For more information call
(209) 283-3245, or visit pawspartners.org.