Bird of the Week: Red-Breasted Nuthatch

Photo Courtesy of Utah Public Radio

Species: Red-breasted Nuthatch, or Sitta canadensis

 Family: Sittidae (Nuthatches)

Star sign: Capricorn

Rating: 13/10

Ideal Date: Going to Six Flags and not using any of the seat restraints. 


The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a tiny little ball of energy and fluff that can often be seen around campus where it hops around with other birds. But it does not just hop on the ground, or tree branches, or in bushes, but on the sides of trees— while upside down! Nuthatches are one of the few bird families that can walk down a tree head-first! How, you ask? This acrobatic ave has a big, backwards-facing toe on its foot called a hallux, which it uses to sort of hang off of the bark as it crawls down, keeping one foot in place while the other grips its next foothold. What a talented and powerful friend! 

During the breeding season, Red-breasted nuthatches live alone or in family pairs, but afterwards they often join mixed flocks of birds. They have been known to keep company with flocks of chickadees, kinglets, and vireos alongside other vagrant species like woodpeckers and creepers. They’re just so good at making friends! And flocking with many kinds of birds also helps them get the inside scoop on potential dangers in their area; Black-capped Chickadees, for instance, will react to the presence of predators by making alarm calls that convey accurate information about the potential threat level, and Red-breasted nuthatches are able to respond accurately to these calls, implying that they can understand them! (If you want to learn more about Chickadee alarm calls, which are extremely cool, you can read the special bird of the week on the subject on the Quest’s website!) But Nuthatches are also discerning, intelligent little friends and don’t trust chickadee calls blindly. Until they can confirm information about predators for themselves, they won’t pass it along in their own calls. We love to see these lively little lads expressing more critical thinking than a large portion of this country’s population! 

For the most part, Red-breasted Nuthatches inhabit the coniferous forests of Canada and the continental US, skewing more towards the south during winter. But every other winter or so, typically coinciding with poor food supplies of conifer seeds, populations of nuthatches will undergo irruptive movements— that is to say, they will migrate much farther south than usual. During these movements, the sprightly songbird sometimes goes as far south as northern Mexico or the Louisiana Gulf Coast, and for a little guy who lives in coniferous forests, those are pretty distant destinations! They’ve even been known to cross the Atlantic to visit Europe and are the only American nuthatch species known to have done so. What well-travelled little fellows! I hope that they enjoy their luxurious culinary vacations! 

If you’d like to see one of these delightful dudes, they can be found on the sides of trees all over campus, since we do, after all, live in a coniferous biome. Red-breasted Nuthatches are teeny, little guys, even smaller than sparrows, and their stubby, tear-shaped bodies have virtually no neck or tail. They have blue-grey backs, breasts that range from cinnamon to peach-colored, and white heads with a black cap and black stripes on the sides of the face. Their beaks are small but pointy and sturdy, perfect for collecting the buggy boys they enjoy feasting upon. And their energetic “tinhorn” call sounds like a little trumpet honking from up in the trees, and it is essential you know that it has been onomatopoeia-tized as “yank-yank.” But you don’t really need all that information to identify the Red-breasted Nuthatch— if you see a bird crawling head-first down a tree, and it has a red breast, it’s one of these fluffy friends!

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