Red Breasted Nuthatch

Red Breasted Nuthatch, Vancouver Island, BC

The red-breasted nuthatch is quite common in the Pacific Northwest and can be seen at feeders along with chestnut-backed chickadees.

The nuthatch is one of the more common residents of diverse stands of evergreen forests. It can also be seen in some suburban habitats with sufficient conifers. It breeds from southeastern Alaska to southern California. It is characterized by its short legs, flat body, and large head. It likes to climb downwards upside down due to its enlarged hind toe and stubby tail. Its strong, long bill is slightly upturned. It is unique from other nuthatches by its prominent white striped eyebrow with a black stripe through the eye. It measures 10 to 12 cm long and has a light rusty red underside that describes its name. Its pointed long wings extend to the tip of the short tail when folded.

The nuthatch generally excavates a cavity in a rotten branch or stump of a dead tree and occasionally builds grass nests in natural or abandoned woodpecker cavities or birdhouses. Usually, excavation lasts from 3 to 9 days. It constantly smears pitch or resin around the nest hole throughout the nesting season. The sticky substance applied, serves as protection from predators, for insulation and to lessen the danger of nest breakage at cavity height. Their nests can be about 2 to 18 meters above the ground. Despite the sticky covering, these birds are able to fly in and out of their nests without being affected. They raise only one brood of young per season.

Red-breasted nuthatches are monogamous and usually mate in spring. Mating is initiated by the female. The female flies toward a male and aggressively points her bill from side to side rhythmically as she flaps her wings gracefully up and down. When the female catches his attention, the male then feeds his mate as he pivots slowly from side to side, Afterwards, the female answers a soft “tetetete” while pointing her bill toward the male with shivering wings.

The nuthatch feeds on insects and conifer seeds. Usually, they forage on trunks of dead conifers but in some cases, they catch insects on the fly. They store nuts in cracks of barks so they can eat them in the future. This habit helps them survive shortages in the winter months. Nuthatches feed with chickadees and titmice and are very competitive at feeding trays.

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