Red-breasted nuthatches are small nuthatches with compact bodies, short tails and necks, and a long tapered bill. They have very sturdy toes and claws that allow them to climb down trees headfirst or hang upside down from branches. They are about 11.5 cm long, and weigh about 10 grams.
Red-breasted nuthatches are the only North American nuthatches that have a broad black stripe over their eye, and a white stripe above it. They also have a black cap on their head, a bluish gray back, and a rusty colored underside. Red-breasted nuthatches have white on their chins, cheeks and sides of their neck. Their tail has white bands, and dark tips on the outer feathers. Their wings are long and pointed and have ten primary feathers.
Male and female red-breasted nuthatches look alike, except the female has a bluish black cap and paler underparts. Juveniles are similar to adults, but their head markings and underparts are duller in color. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Terres, 1982)
Red-breasted nuthatches are native throughout the Nearctic region. They are the only species in the family Sittidae that migrates. The breeding range of red-breasted nuthatches ranges from southern Alaska and Canada to northern California, and as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina on the east coast of the United States. Red-breasted nuthatches winter in southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, northern Florida and on the Gulf Coast. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Terres, 1982)
Red-breasted nuthatches prefer mature, partly open coniferous or mixed conifer-deciduous stands for breeding. They like stands that have a tall, dense canopy and a dense understory of saplings. The tall and short trees protect them from predators and provide a variety of foods.
Nuthatches prefer ponderosa pine and incense cedar, which both have rough bark. Rough bark provides habitat for arthropods, which the nuthatches eat. Nuthatches do not visit trees with smooth bark. (Adams and Morrison, 1993)
Red-breasted nuthatches are monogamous. They form breeding pairs beginning in winter or spring, and stay together for a year or more. Each pair defends a territory through the breeding season, and possibly through the year if the cone crop is good. In order to attract a female, males perform courtship displays that include raising their head and tail, drooping the wings, and fluffing the back feathers. A male sways from side to side and sings with his back turned toward the female. During courtship, males sing up to 50 times per minute from the tops of trees and potential nest trees. They also bring food to the female during courtship. (Ghalambor and Martin, 1999a; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b; Stalloup, 1968; Terres, 1982)
Red-breasted nuthatches begin breeding when they are one year old. The male and female both build the nest. They usually dig out a cavity in a tree stump or a branch of a dead tree, or they may build the nest in an old woodpecker hole. They protect the inside of the nest by smearing it with resin. This keeps insects, small mammals, and other birds out of the nest. The nuthatches build a cup inside the cavity from grasses, roots, mosses, shredded bark, and plant fibers.
Red-breasted nuthatches breed between April and August. Each pair raises one brood per year. The female lays 5 to 8 (usually 6) pinkish-white eggs that are speckled with a reddish brown color. One egg is laid each day. The female incubates the eggs, which hatch after 12 to 13 days. During incubation, the male provides food to the female. This allows her to spend more time incubating the eggs. The nestlings are altricial (helpless), and the female broods them for the first few days. The male brings food to the female and the chicks. The chicks leave the nest after 18 to 21 days. They become fully independent about 2 weeks after fledging. (Ghalambor and Martin, 1999a; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b; Stalloup, 1968; Terres, 1982)
Newly hatched nuthatches are altricial, which means they are immobile, have closed eyes, and must be cared for by an adult. The female broods the chicks for the first week after hatching. During this time, the male brings food for the female and chicks. During the nestling and fledgling periods, both adults feed the chicks. They also remove the fecal sacs of the chicks from the nest. The chicks usually leave the nest 18 to 21 days after hatching, but may be dependent on their parents for food for another two weeks. (Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b; Terres, 1982)
Red-breasted nuthatches are able to climb down tree trunks headfirst. This allows them to find food that other birds miss.
Red-breasted nuthatches are extremely territorial during the breeding season. Pairs may even remain together throughout the winter to defend food territories if resources are plentiful. Male threat displays are similar to the displays used to court females. Males may threaten others by dropping their wings, holding their tail upright, and raising the feathers on the crest of their head. They may also lower their head and swing their tail back and forth. In the winter, red-breasted nuthatches may join large flocks of mixed species.
If food is scarce in the north, large numbers of red-breasted nuthatches may move southward for a season. This is called an irruption. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999a; Terres, 1982)
Red-breasted nuthatches use a physical displays and vocalizations to communicate. The most common call of red-breasted nuthatches is a nasal "yank-yank" call that sounds like a small tin horn. Both males and females have many other calls that are softer and not heard as often. (Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b)
Red-breasted nuthatches eat conifer seeds and insects including beetles, wasps, caterpillars, crane flies, moths, and insect eggs. They usually eat arthropods during the breeding season, and conifer seeds during the winter. The young are fed insects.
Nuthatches are bark-gleaning birds. This means that they search for food in the bark of trees. They spend most of their time on the trunks of trees, but may also search for food on branches, stumps, and the ground. They break food apart by wedging it into bark crevices and breaking smaller pieces off, or by prying seeds open with their strong beaks.
Nuthatches store food during the fall and winter. They hide food under bark, in holes in tree trunks, and sometimes on the ground. They get water by drinking from small pools. (Adams and Morrison, 1993; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b; Terres, 1982)
Red-breasted nuthatches are preyed upon by a number of bird and mammal species. Predators of adult red-breasted nuthatches include sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper's hawks, merlins, northern pygmy-owls, spotted owls, red squirrels and weasels. Steller's jays, housewrens, gray-necked chipmunks, weasels and mice are known predators of eggs and nestlings.
Red-breasted nuthatches defend their nest from predators by surrounding the entrance to the nest with pine pitch. They also join other small birds in mobbing potential predators, such as hawks and jays. When a nest is threatened, the female may jump out of her nest cavity and perch near the entrance to perform an anti-predator display. She spreads her wings and sways slowly back and forth to distract the predator from the nest. (Ghalambor and Martin, 1999a; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b)
Red-breasted nuthatches may be important in the seed dispersal of forest tree seeds. They collect seeds and store them in places where they may germinate and grow into trees.
Red-breasted nuthatches also affect the populations of animals that eat them, and the insects that they eat. (Adams and Morrison, 1993)
Red-breasted nuthatches have no known negative effect on humans.
Red-breasted nuthatches eat a variety of insects, including beetles, wasps, and flies, that humans consider to be pests. (Terres, 1982)
Populations of red-breasted nuthatches are increasing overall, but declining locally in some areas. Red-breasted nuthatches depend on habitat with dead trees and a variety of tree species. Logging that removes dead trees or leaves only a few species of trees hurts nuthatch populations. (Adams and Morrison, 1993; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b)
The word 'nuthatch' may come from a Eurasian relative's fondness for hazelnuts, or for their ability to hack open nuts and seeds. (Terres, 1982)
Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.
Cara Sands (author), Western Maryland College, Randall L. Morrison (editor), Western Maryland College.
Adams, E., M. Morrison. 1993. Effects of forest stand structure and composition on red-breasted nuthatches and brown creepers. Journal of Wildlife Management, 57(3): 616-633.
Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of Northern American Birds. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.
Ghalambor, C., T. Martin. 1999. Parental investment strageties in two species of nuthatch vary with stage-specific predation risk and reproductive effort. Animal Behavior, 60: 263-276.
Ghalambor, C., T. Martin. 1999. Red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). Pp. 1-28 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 459. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc.
Stalloup, P. 1968. Spatio-temporal relationships of nuthatches and woodpeckers in ponderosa pine forests of Colorado. Ecology, 49: 831-843.
Terres, J. 1982. The Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Random House Inc.
USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, 2002. "Longevity Records of North American Birds" (On-line). Accessed 22 April 2003 at http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/homepage/longvrec.htm.