For the Birds Radio Program: Red-breasted Nuthatch

Original Air Date: Feb. 14, 2006

This little round beeper is one of Laura’s favorite birds. Laura gives tips for distinguishing our two nuthatches and talks about the littler one’s quirks.

Duration: 4′24″


People are always asking me what my favorite bird is. Sometimes I go with the gaudy, simply resplendent Resplendent Quetzal. Sometimes I say it’s the elegant and graceful Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. Sometimes I prefer the absolutely adorable: then I name a bird I’ve never seen but had had vivid dreams about one day seeing, the Cuban Tody. Sometimes I can’t resist the combination of beauty and brains of a Blue Jay. I often choose a bird of superlatives: the Ruby-throated Hummingbird or our own dear, home, inquisitive, and jolly chickadee. But when I’m thinking of a cute little bird with endearing habits and a plaintive little beep, I think of the Red=breasted Nuthatch.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch is, in may ways, like its larger, non-migratory relative. It clings to trees in a topsy-turvy, upside-down pose, often gleaning insects from crevices in the bark that woodpeckers and creepers just don’t notice at their angle of view. It nests in little cavities in trees, sometimes associates with chickadee flocks, and hangs around north country year-round. It wears a black cap and has a bluish-gray back, and visits our feeders occasionally for sunflower seeds and very often for suet.

As similar as the two species are, they’re easy to tell apart. Rather than the big white cheeks that accentuate the White-breasted Nuthatch’s beady little eye, the much smaller Red-breasted Nuthatch has a black eyeline. The White-breasted Nuthatch has rusty feathers on its lower sides and undertail; the Red=breasted Nuthatch’s rusty feathers cover the throat, breast, and belly. And you can distinguish the voices of the two because the White-breasted Nuthatch sounds cranky, while the Red-breasted Nuthatch sounds whiny.

Despite their many similarities, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is the only nuthatch that undergoes regular irruptive movements. These irruptions appear to be primarily driven by a shortage of winter food on the breeding grounds. During irruption years, large numbers of individuals often invade uncharacteristic habitats as far south as the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and the desert washes of northern Mexico. And because of this propensity for long-distance movements, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is the only North American nuthatch to have crossed the Atlantic to Europe as a vagrant.

We of course enjoy these endearing little birds every winter, some years in huge numbers. But we’re also lucky to enjoy them during summer. Breeding birds typically excavate their own nest cavities in tree snags using their tiny little beaks, and only rarely wimp out and use existing cavities or nest boxes. Nesting pairs collect conifer resin from live trees and smear it around the cavity entrance during the incubation and nestling periods—this may be a strategy to deter predators and competitors from entering the cavity. I raised nestling nuthatches one year when I was rehabbing, and many days before they fledged, they were already showing their nuthatch legacy by moving about in that upside-down manner.

Even when not raised by people, Red-breasted Nuthatches are as endearing and confiding as chickadees, and learn as quickly to take food from our hands. The ones in my yard notice the moment I crank open a window to fill the window feeder—they’re often crawling on my hand while I’m still pouring seeds out. These endearing little birds enrich the north country’s wild community, and our own lives as well.