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Red-Breasted Nuthatch: Field Guide, Pictures, Habitat & Info

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red-breasted nuthatch perched

Red-breasted Nuthatches are tiny, energetic songbirds in the Sittidae family. They’re often found bounding from branch to branch through tree canopies in northern woods and coniferous forests where they nest. They have a characteristically short tail, and they’re famous for their gravity-defying act of climbing headfirst down tree trunks.

These little songbirds forage on tree trunks and large branches, seeking hidden insects with their sharp, thin bills. When insects are scarce, they’ll turn to conifer seeds.

Red-breasted Nuthatches are known for their high-pitched, nasal, tin trumpet-like call.

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Quick Facts about the Red-Breasted Nuthatch

Habitat Forests
Diet Insects
Behavior Bark Forager
Nesting Cavity Nester
Conservation Low Concern
Scientific name Sitta Canadensis
Lifespan: Around 6 Years

Red-Breasted Nuthatch General Description

Red-breasted Nuthatches have cinnamon-colored underparts that stand out from under their blue-gray wings and back. Their throat is white, while their crown is black. They have a white eyebrow line and a sharp black eye line.

Typically measuring at around 4.3 inches in length, and between 0.3 and 0.5 ounces in weight, Red-breasted Nuthatches are smaller than sparrows, and noticeably smaller than White-breasted Nuthatches.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch
Image Credit: JudaM, Pixabay

Red-Breasted Nuthatch: Range, Habitat, Behavior, Diet & Nesting

Range

Red-breasted Nuthatches are common inhabitants of northern and western coniferous forests and woods in the United States and Canada. These Nuthatches travel farther into the northern mountains than some of their cousins.

During the breeding season, they are most common in the forests along the border between the United States and Canada. During winter, the northmost birds will migrate toward the southern United States.

Habitat

Red-breasted Nuthatches get their food from trees, so it’s no surprise that coniferous forests are home to most of them. Lookout for their nests in forests that are dense with spruce, fir, hemlock, pine, larch, and western red cedar.

During migration, you may find them in deciduous trees too, but only if there aren’t any conifers available to them.

Red-Breasted Nuthatch
Image Credit: Pxhere

Behavior

These birds are tiny gravity-defying bundles of energy. They bounce up and down trees, and move side to side in quick little movements—with no regard for which way is up. They use their beaks to forage on insects under the tree bark, and fly in short bouncy bursts.

Diet

The diet of a Red-breasted Nuthatch is mostly made up of insects, flies, and arthropods, including beetles, spiders, earwigs, ants, and caterpillars. When insects become scarce during the winter, Nuthatches will turn to conifer seeds, some of which they cached earlier in the year. Red-breasted Nuthatches will happily eat from feeders too.

Nesting

Usually, female Red-breasted Nuthatches choose their own nesting site, but the male will help in excavating the cavity in the tree. They’ll opt to excavate the cavities in dead trees, or even trees with broken tops. They’ll often choose a tree that has softer wood, such as aspen. The excavation process can take up to 18 days.

When the cavity is ready, the female will blanket the nest with grass, strips of deadwood and bark, pine needles, fur, feathers, and shredded bark. Both the breeding parents then smear conifer resin onto the cavity entrance, sometimes using a piece of bark as a tool! They do this to deter predators and larger birds from coming into the nest.

Red-breasted Nuthatch Bird Feeder
Image Credit: Pxhere

How to Find the Red-breasted Nuthatch: Birdwatching Tips

What to Listen For

Red-breasted Nuthatches have a very distinct song. Listen for a succession of around 4 to 6 high-pitched, nasal yank-yank-yank sounds. Sometimes they speed up the yank sound, so it sounds more like a trill or even a cackle.

What to Look For

The distinct head markings of Red-breasted Nuthatches make them relatively easy to identify. Look out for them climbing on tree trunks and branches in forests and woodlands. They’re small, blue-gray birds with rusty-cinnamon or pale cinnamon-colored undersides. Their crowns are black, but there’s a sharp white line over their eyebrow. They also have a sharp black eye line, and a white throat. Their tails are short, and they have a sharp, gray bill.

When to Look

Red-breasted Nuthatches can be found year-round across most of the United States. If you live in the north, there will be more of them here during the breeding season. In the southern states, Red-breasted Nuthatches are more common during the winter.

hummingbird divider Attracting Red-Breasted Nuthatches to Your Backyard: Tips & Tricks

Like all birds, Red-breasted Nuthatches visit places that have abundant food, water, and shelter. Follow these 5 tips to make your backyard more appealing to these little songbirds!

1. Stock Up on Their Favorite Food

Nuthatches mainly eat insects, but during the winter when they migrate south, they will be looking out for nuts, sunflower seeds, suet, and peanut butter. If you have nut-bearing trees and shrubs in your backyard, they’ll be even happier!

red breasted nuthatch
Image Credit: Pxhere

2. Plant Their Favorite Trees

These birds really do love their coniferous trees. Planting evergreens in your backyard will encourage them to come and not only feed there, but maybe even make their nest. These trees, along with deciduous trees, will offer visiting Nuthatches the shelter they need at night.

3. Provide a Source of Water

Even during winter, Nuthatches need access to clean water. Provide them with a bird bath, preferably close to the trees where they shelter.

4. Avoid Using Pesticides

Red-breasted Nuthatches love insects. If you have beetles, spiders, and flies in your backyard, these birds will gladly feed on them. By using pesticides, you’ll be depriving them of their favorite food. In the end, they’re more likely to visit a backyard that has more insects. 

5. Leave Dead Trees Intact

Dead trees, or trees that have had their tops broken, are ideal food and nesting locations for Red-breasted Nuthatches. They love to excavate the cavities for their nests in dead trees, but they also harbor lots of insects, making them a great source of food.

dead tree in forest for birds

Red-Breasted Nuthatch Conservation: Is this Bird Threatened?

Red-breasted Nuthatches are common in the United States and southern Canada. In fact, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, their population increased between 1966 and 2019. They are deemed to be of low conservation concern.hummingbird divider

Final Thoughts

Red-breasted Nuthatches are fun little birds with a distinct, funny call. The tiny tin-trumpet callers love to climb up and down trees, searching for food. They paint their nest entrances with resin to keep danger away, but they’re not shy when it comes to people. Look for them in coniferous forests in the spring and summer, and in backyard feeders and parks during the winter!


Featured Imaged Credit: JackBulmer, Pixabay

About the Author Cheryl Regan

Cheryl is a freelance content and copywriter from the United Kingdom. Her interests include hiking and amateur astronomy but focuses her writing on gardening and photography. If she isn't writing she can be found curled up with a coffee and her pet cat.