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Nuthatches and Wall Creepers: Sittidae

Red-breasted Nuthatch (sitta Canadensis): Species Accounts

Physical characteristics: Male red-breasted nuthatches have blue-gray upperparts (back, shoulders, wings, and rump) with red-brown to buffy orange under parts. They have a black cap and nape (back part of neck), a white throat, a white stripe over the eyes and a black stripe through them. The male nuthatches also have a blue-grey short tail (which shows a white band near the ends). Females are similar to males except for a dark gray crown and nape, and lighter buff under parts that are rustier on the sides of the lower body and the feathers beneath the wings. They are 4.0 to 4.7 inches (10.2 to 11.9 centimeters) long, with wings that are 8.0 to 8.5 inches (20.3 to 21.6 centimeters) wide. They weigh about 0.35 ounces (10 grams).

Geographic range: Red-breasted nuthatches are found throughout southern and northwestern Canada and most of the United States (and found very infrequently in Florida and the southern parts of the Southwest, usually only during the winter months).

Habitat: Red-breasted nuthatches inhabit dense coniferous forests (such as balsam fir and spruce), mixed coniferous-deciduous forests, and along rivers within such forests, moving northward into the high mountains during breeding season. They may also be found in other types of forests, especially during their fall migration.

Diet: They eat invertebrates such as beetles, wasps, caterpillars, insect eggs, and crane flies from tree bark and foliage. In winter, they also eat fruits, nuts, and seeds (especially of pines, spruces, firs, and other conifers). The birds wedge food in tree bark crevices with their bills, and then break off pieces before eating them. They use the head-down movement as they climb trees, as opposed to the normal way of climbing trees head first (head-up).

Behavior and reproduction: Red-breasted nuthatches are rather quiet and tame birds. They are normally found as pairs who defend a breeding territory. Considered an irregular migratory bird, they sometimes spend winters in breeding areas when food is plentiful. At other times during the fall, large numbers of the birds move south together and into lowlands, especially when food supplies are low. They produce calls that sound like a nasal "hennk-jemml," which is quite high-pitched but soft. Other calls include "it-it-it" and "ank-ank-ank." Their song is a high-pitched "wa-wa-wa-wa-wa" or "eeeen-eeeen-eeeen."

Males court females by feeding them. The male's courtship rituals also include turning his back to her, and then lifting his head and tail, raising back feathers and drooping wings, and swaying from side to side. The monogamous breeding pair uses cavities of trees (often pine and cottonwood) for their nests, along with old woodpecker holes and bird boxes. Nests are from 5 to 100 feet (1.5 to 30.5 meters) off the ground but usually 15 feet (4.5 meters). The inside of the nest is lined with grasses, mosses, rootlets, shredded bark, and plant fibers. Females lay four to seven eggs (which are peppered and spotted with different shades of brown) from April to June. Females sit on the eggs for an incubation period (time of sitting on eggs) of about twelve days, but males join females in feeding of the young. Fledging period (time it takes for the young to grow flying feathers) is eighteen to twenty-one days.

Red-breasted nuthatches and people: Red-breasted nuthatches will often eat out of the hands of people who feed them.

Conservation status: Red-breasted nuthatches are not threatened, being fairly common to common in most of its range. Its eastern breeding range is expanding southward. ∎

Additional topics

Animal Life ResourceBirdsNuthatches and Wall Creepers: Sittidae - Physical Characteristics, Diet, Behavior And Reproduction, Red-breasted Nuthatch (sitta Canadensis): Species Accounts - GEOGRAPHIC RANGE, HABITAT, WALL CREEPERS NUTHATCHES AND PEOPLE, CONSERVATION STATUS