By mid-September our various summer visitors (the avian kind) have left for their southern homes, but we find there is still a lot of activity at and around our bird feeders. The majority are year around resident birds. A few glorious male goldfinches continue to brighten the day with their deep yellow and black feathers (soon to fade to dull green), young Purple Finches who are brown in color are present in large numbers, as are the brown streaked Pine Siskins. Mixed in among these flocks are individual Red-Breasted Nuthatches.
We believe we had a number of successful nests of these little, natty woodland nuthatches this summer, because of the numbers coming to the feeders, many of whom are obviously juveniles. When we sit on our front deck, we are in the flight path from the trees on the west side of the house to the feeders in the front. They zoom inches over our head or past our noses, as though we were permanent patio furniture. We shake our heads and smile every time they do this. We are easily entertained.
Red-Breasted Nuthatches are found from east to west across the North American continent, mainly in the northern regions where there are spruce forests. But this habitat is also found in the mountainous west, where their range extends further south than it does in the east. They are residents also of the far northern reaches of Canada, evidenced by their scientific name Sitta Canadensis.
These compact, (4.5” from beak to tail. 8” wingspan), hyperactive little birds have ‘orangish’ sides and a black line on either side of the eye, with white above and below and black stripe on top of their heads. A quick glance doesn’t show the difference in plumage between the male and female, but closer examination shows the male’s black cap, while the female’s is dark grey. The female’s underside is also a lighter buff color, but these differences are best seen by the bander who holds the bird in their hand.
Like their cousins, the White-Breasted Nuthatches, the Red-Breasted are able to creep up and down (headfirst) tree trunks and even on the underside of branches. Their stiff, short tail and sharp claws are specially adapted to this kind of foraging behavior. When you see them going up and down trees, they are looking for insects and their larvae, on or under the bark. The crevices in the bark serve as a wedge to hold a black sunflower seed while they hammer away at it with their sharp pointed beak. They are also known to cache wild bird seeds under the bark for later use.
This morning I was standing by one our tube feeders that have a wire enclosure around it to keep out the bigger birds and a Red-Breasted Nuthatch flew in and perched on top. I was no more than two feet away. It looked at me first with one eye and then turning its head, the other. These birds often show little fear of humans and this one was typical. It hopped down to one of the holes in the feeder and proceeded to pick out and toss away at least five sunflower seeds, before it found one to its liking. Then it flew away with the seed in its bill. The seeds that were thrown to the ground won’t go to waste because the Mourning Doves, ground squirrels and chipmunks will appreciate the nuthatches carelessness.
For most of the winter, their food consists of seeds from the cones of the coniferous trees or from people’s feeders, with suet one of their favorite foods.