Bird Lore: Red-breasted Nuthatch

Photo by LeRoy VanHee
Photo by LeRoy VanHee

Edmonds is within the year-round range of the Red-breasted Nuthatch, as is much of Washington, including the mountains. Unless you see it at your bird feeders, you may overlook this nuthatch until it wanders down the trunk of a conifer towards the ground.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch prefers mature conifer forests for both foraging and nesting. Its signature posture is head first as it works its way down a trunk, gleaning spiders and insects from the bark. It also works its way through tree branches in search of those same food sources. In winter seeds are added to its diet. This nuthatch will come to suet feeders year-round, if it is nesting in or near your yard. It will also take seeds and peanuts. If a food item is too large, the nuthatch will jam it into bark and then hammer it open.

Both sexes excavate a nest cavity, usually five to 40 feet above ground. Nests are usually built in completely dead trees, dead parts of live trees, and trees with broken tops. This nuthatch will rarely use an artificial nest box. Once they excavate the cavity, the female builds the nest out of feathers, moss, and soft grass. The pair smears pitch or resin around the entrance to the nest, both on the outside and inside of the hole. It is thought that they do this to discourage predators. The nuthatches avoid the resin by flying directly into the hole.

The female lays five to six eggs and incubates them for about two weeks. The male brings her food during this time. Both feed the nestlings until they leave the nest after two to three weeks. This species is thought to have one brood a year.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch has a quiet but persistent call that you can listen to at this link:

– By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell, author of our new “Bird Lore” feature, manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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