Red-breasted nuthatch: The upside-down bird

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  • Photos by DON BARTLING The red-breasted nuthatch is our smallest feeder bird visitor and the most trusting.

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    The red-breasted nuthatch is a handsome bird. The male sports a dark cap, white eyebrow, black line through the eye, orangish underparts and blue-gray back.

  • Photos by DON BARTLING The red-breasted nuthatch is our smallest feeder bird visitor and the most trusting.

  • 1

    The red-breasted nuthatch is a handsome bird. The male sports a dark cap, white eyebrow, black line through the eye, orangish underparts and blue-gray back.

When I was out at the bird feeder on the east side of our house last week I realized the red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta Canadensis) was one of my favorite backyard visitors. He seemed impossibly small, and virtually weightless. He was feathered perfection.

The red-breasted nuthatch is a handsome little package that’s easy to ID. The male sports a dark cap, white eyebrow, black line through the eye, orangish underparts and blue-gray back. The markings on the female are similar to the male but muted.

Stepping into my yard, I often hear the bird’s nasal calls before I see it, if I see it at all. The persistent ank, ank, ank is small but distinctive, like the species itself. You can listen at allaboutbirds.org, a terrific resource provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Nuthatch behavior is unique as well. Their typical posture is upside down, with the head lower than their short tails. Extra-large feet help them creep along tree trunks, foraging for insects or “hatching” the seeds they wedged into the crevice earlier. As I watched him climb on the tree bark I thought he was the avian equivalent of Spider-Man,

The nuthatch species enjoy black-oil sunflower seeds, but I have read that shelled peanuts seem to be the key to attracting and holding red-breasteds. Our wire mesh feeder is a magnet for them, along with chickadees and woodpeckers. Squirrels crave the seeds, also!

The red-breasted nuthatch is our smallest feeder bird visitor and the most trusting. Once one landed on a branch by the feeder just as I was about to hang it up. I froze, and for a few seconds watched the bird a couple of feet from my face. I understand with patience, nuthatches — like chickadees — will even take food from your hand.

Being tiny and weighing less than an ounce has a price. Red-breasted nuthatches must practice exceptional patience, waiting for just the right moment to fly in and grab a bite during times when the feeders are busy. It’s a pecking order thing, and fascinating to observe.

Formerly known as the Canada nuthatch or the red-bellied nuthatch, the red-breasted nuthatch is a common resident of North America’s boreal forests (coniferous forests). The red-breasted nuthatch has the unusual habit of smearing resin around the entrance hole to its nest, presumably to deter predators and competitors from entering the nest. During the breeding season, the red-breasted is usually found in forests dominated by firs and spruces; during migration and winter, it is found in a variety of habitats. When not breeding, the red-breasted can be seen in small flocks with other nuthatches, chickadees, kinglets, and brown creepers.

The name “nuthatch” refers to the bird’s habit of wedging a seed into a crevice and hacking it open. It is often seen in mature conifers, frequently extracting seeds from the cones. They don’t excavate a cavity as the chickadee might; rather, it takes over a former woodpecker or chickadee cavity.

Enjoy Boundary County and all of its birds!

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