Photo by Joe Halton
Breathe in. Breathe out. Raise binoculars to eyes and enjoy the downward facing behavior of the Red-breasted Nuthatch as it forages from top to bottom of a tree trunk. This bird will fly from tree to tree using this pattern to search for insects, spiders and egg masses. In winter, its diet switches to seeds. The name Nuthatch is thought to have derived from the term nut “hack.” The bird will wedge a seed into tree bark and then hack it open. They are known to keep a cache of seeds hammering them in place with their bill.
A vocal bird in coniferous trees, the repeated “yank, yank, yank,” is very distinctive. Listen for their calls year round. They are monogamous breeders and will stay together during winter vocalizing “location” calls to each other. Very rarely will multiple birds be seen in the same tree. Recognizing Red-breasted Nuthatches is easy. The bird is small; only 4.5 inches long. The crown is black capped. They have a white supercilium (eyebrow) and a black stripe through their eyes. The bill is slightly recurved, used to pry tree bark. The throat is white followed by a rusty-red breast. The upper parts and tail are bluish-gray. Legs and feet are short and black. Their hind toe is enlarged and their tails are short which assists in navigating downward facing movements. Unlike woodpeckers and creepers, nuthatches do not use their tail to brace against trees.
Both the male and female excavate a cavity in a rotten branch or stump. They will take advantage of deserted woodpeckers holes too. The cavity is lined with bark shreds, grass and roots. Red-breasted Nuthatches practice a very interesting nesting behavior by lining the cavity entrance with tree resin. The female applies resin to the inside and the male takes care of the outside. Scientist theorize the resin is to repel predators. The female will lay 5 to 6 pinkish-white eggs with reddish-brown specks. Incubation takes about 12 days. Both the male and female feed their young insects for the next 2 to 3 weeks. They have one brood each breeding season.
These birds are mostly solitary, but have been known to congregate with chickadees in winter. A group of nuthatches is called a “jar.” Of the four species of nuthatches in North America, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is the only one to migrate. Their migration is a short change in elevation depending on food supplies.
These birds are frequent visitors to feeders filled with sunflower seeds, especially located near coniferous trees. On your next walk, listen for the “yank” of the Nuthatch. It's a welcome call on a chilly fall day in Skagit County. Breathe in the crisp air and take a moment to observe this downward facing bird!
References available upon request.