Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Red-Breasted Nutchatches

Susan Benson,
CNHM Director of Education

Could there be anything more perfect than a nuthatch? I sat this morning for a few moments of solitude, in front of the new bird feeder, watching the red-breasted nuthatches visit the sunflower seed feeder. Having it three feet away from my window made for such up-close inspection as I sat, without moving. I watched as it tossed away the seeds to the ground, amazing me with its beauty. I live in the perfect habitat for red-breasted nuthatches, a mixed deciduous-coniferous forest, with mature stands of decaying large trees. I knew these monogamous birds stay paired up throughout the winter. Then, as I watched it eat from further away, I thought of its appropriate name. The common name, nuthatch, comes from the Eurasian Nuthatch's habit of wedging an acorn into a bark crevice and then breaking it open with blows from its bill. The nuthatch family name is Sittidae, and sitte is a Greek word for "birds that peck on the bark of trees." These are just some of the interesting facts about this well-loved bird.

When building their nests, both male and female red-breasted nuthatches excavate a hole that can take up to 18 days to build. They are known to steal the soft lining from other birds’ nests for their own. Then they repeatedly smear pine pitch and insects around the entrance of their nest to sanitize it. To apply the pitch, they use their beak or a piece of bark with the pitch on it as an application tool. The males will place the resin on the outside, and females place it on the inside. It is believed that the pitch and defensive chemicals of the insects keeps out parasites. It might also discourage predators. The birds prevent it from sticking to themselves by diving right through the hole. It is dead or dying aspens that these birds prefer for their excavations because of the soft wood.

In summer, red-breasted nuthatches eat beetles, caterpillars, spiders, ants, and earwigs, and they raise their young on 100% protein. In fall and winter they tend to eat conifer seeds. They will transport cone seeds from a heavily laden conifer and hoard excess food in nearby larders to help them get through winter. They shove the food into bark crevices and cover them with pieces of bark, lichen or pebbles. Red-breasted nuthatches also eat from bird feeders, often choosing the heaviest food item available, jamming it into bark and hammering it open.

Red-breasted nuthatches have interesting behaviors. One of most comical behaviors to watch is the typical nuthatch movement. Red-breasted nuthatches move quickly on trees, zigzagging downward, relying on their backward-pointing toe to grip the trunk. This advantage helps them see insects hiding in crevices that woodpeckers and birds that only move upward on a tree cannot see. Another behavior seen mostly in winter is when red-breasted nuthatches join foraging flocks of chickadees and other small birds. Also, small groups of nuthatches will spend the night together in tree cavities. Finally, when listening, their call is a “yank, yank” that sounds a bit like a high-pitched tin trumpet.

Did you know that due to the weaker feet of a red-breasted nuthatch, they bathe by puffing their wings out during a rain storm? This is just one more fact I couldn’t leave out, so I end with that nature nugget. I can think of no reason that we shouldn’t all be nuts for nuthatches!

For over 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and new exhibit, Our Shared Planet, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Post your own stories on the Nature Watch blog at

1 comment:

  1. Sue,
    Great new setup. I love that you can include a picture of the animals that you will now write about. Thanks and keep me on the list and I hope it won't be too hot or too cold for my 20th Birkie next month.
    Clif Louis