Red-breasted nuthatches are energetic birds

The red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) are among the busiest birds coming to my feeders, matched only by the black-capped chickadees. They’re 4.5″ of non-stop energy. Like the chickadees, they have a short neck and round head. Their wings and back are blue-gray. They sport a black cap on the heads and black mask-like stripe along their eyes, and have a white face. A long, pointed bill helps them hide and find food they’ve stashed. If they look at you face-to-face their mask makes them look like miniature villains. Their name, red-breasted, comes from their butterscotch underparts. Females are lighter in color than males, as usual. I suppose butterscotch-breasted nuthatch is a big name for a small bird.

black-capped chickadee and red-breasted nuthatch

For size comparison, a black-capped chickadee (left) and red-breasted nuthatch.

Nuthatches are acrobats. They’re up, down and sideways on tree trunks and branches, the feeders and suet ball.

Female red-breasted nuthatch

Hanging around, waiting for her turn on the suet. The lighter color indicates this is a female.

Red-breasted nuthatches like a mix of hardwood and softwood forests. You’ll find them in the same areas as chickadees and woodpeckers. They’re cavity nesters that do their own excavation, creating a nest that’s 2.5″ to 8″ deep in the dead parts of trees.

I didn’t know anything about their nesting habits so I did a little research. They gather resin from conifer trees, sometimes in their beaks and other times on pieces of wood, and apply it to the opening of the nest cavity. When gathered on wood, the wood is used as an application. It’s thought that the stickiness of the resin deters predators. The nuthatches avoid the resin by flying directly into the cavity rather than landing near or in the hole first. Males coat the outside and females take care of the inside.  The nest is lined with shredded bark, grass, fur and feathers. One brood of young is raised a year. Two to eight light colored speckled eggs are laid and incubated for 12 to 13 days. In 18 to 21 days the young leave the nest.

red-breasted nuthatch in snow

This male red-breasted nuthatch flew to the feeder, took a sunflower seed and flew back to the hydrangea bush to eat the seed.

Red-breasted nuthatches eat cone seeds, insects and caterpillars. At the feeder they prefer black oil sunflower seeds, suet and shelled peanuts. If you’re patient you might convince one to land on your hand to get food. I start in the morning when the feeder is empty. I hold out a handful of sunflower seeds and stay as still as possible. They don’t usually come to me easily. It could take a few days, maybe a week, until they’re comfortable enough to land on you. One of the males will land on the feeder while I’m filling it and will sometimes land on my hand. He’s still getting used to me. Be patient. Being able to observe these little dynamos at arm’s length is worth the effort.

Robin Follette

About Robin Follette

Maine Press Association award winner, 2013. Robin's Outdoors, Bangor Daily News, third place in Sports blogs. I grew up with a fishing pole in my hand and have always loved the outdoors. From gardening to hunting and fishing, kayaking, camping, hiking and foraging, most of my time is spent outdoors. I teach outdoor skills as a volunteer instructor for Hooked On Fishing - Not On Drugs and Becoming an Outdoors-Woman. Pro-staff at The Limb Grip. My personal blog is here. I'm currently working on my first book, a collection of short stories based on my outdoors experiences.