NO FEWER THAN four friends have taunted me for the last several months with their reports of the red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) hanging around their feeders.
“Oh, we have them every day,” one says.
“There are several here all the time,” says another.
Another friend tells me “If I stand at the feeder they will come right up to me and eat practically from my hand.”
I’m surprised someone hasn’t mentioned that they invite them in for dinner and sometimes the little fellas stay overnight and sleep on the pull-out sofa.
We had red-breasted nuthatches all the time at the feeders my mom put out when I was a kid. The picture of the RBN in my tattered Peterson’s field guide is duly checked. They are cheery little guys, petite and even busier than their white-breasted kin. Some people have even mistaken them for young white-breasteds, but they are most definitely their own bird.
There may have been red-breasted nuthatches here at our place in the almost 28 years we have lived here, but I don’t recall them. One of the people who brag about their presence at their place is just a mere four miles south of me.
I take out bank loans to keep suet and black oil sunflower seed and thistle seed in stock and considered selling my car to get a bigger supply of mealworms. These are all the same things that everyone else is putting out to bribe songbirds and woodpeckers and nuthatches to their feeders. But the red-breasted nuthatch remains elusive in my neck of the woods.
So I decided if they aren’t going to visit me, I’ll visit them. A casual (outdoors and socially-distanced) visit to one of my red-breasted nuthatch-laden friends rewarded me in spades. Oh, it was nice to see them, but the jackpot of RBNs was over the top. She was right, they fluttered all over her as she replenished the suet container. The little busybodies were in constant motion flying from tree to suet and tree to seed feeder. I was able to get pretty close and therefore was able to get an even closer shot with a zoom lens.
The odd thing about my lack of visitation is that red-breasted nuthatches are actually more common the farther north you go. According to Audubon.org, their “numbers are probably stable” so the fact that I am not seeing them at my house is not because they are scarce. They prefer a mature forest likely, the Audubon site says, because “old decaying wood is needed for nest sites.” They do also say that “winter range varies tremendously from year to year, especially in the east … . In years with good food supply, they may remain all winter on nesting territory.”
David Allen Sibley’s “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior,” has some interesting things to say about nuthatches. Sibley explains that while nuthatches have a woodpecker-like way about them — they climb trees like woodpeckers, they peck into cavities in bark, and they excavate holes in trees — nuthatches and woodpeckers are not closely related.
A fact I find fascinating is that nuthatches move up and down trees while creepers and woodpeckers move only up. What would the reason for that difference be, I wonder?
The little red-breasted nuthatch is also apparently quite smart. Sibley explains that in a cognitive study, they (and black-capped chickadees) could “distinguish an empty sunflower seed husk from one containing food solely by weight.
Of the 25 species worldwide in the family Sittidae, 24 belong to the genus Sitta, the true nuthatches. In the U.S., besides the white and the red, there are pygmy nuthatches (only slightly smaller than the other nuthatches and found in the western U.S.) and brown-headed nuthatches, found in the southeastern United States.
Both white- and red-breasted have a longish bill that turns up slightly at the end — useful for really getting up and under bark. The red has a slightly more nasal call than the white. A key visual identifying feature between the red and white (if size and body color isn’t enough) is that the red-breasted nuthatch has a white eyebrow stripe and, even more distinguishing (and distinguished), they have a black line through the eye. They also have black on their head and neck.
They first start breeding, according to Sibley’s behavior book, at 1 year old. They are monogamous for the season. They average 5-9 eggs in the nest, incubate them for 11-20 days, and the hatchlings fledge between 18-30 days.
It is not known how long nuthatches tend to live but annual survival rates are estimated to be 50%, says Sibley.
Red-breasted nuthatches live in coniferous forests — those with trees that have needles and cones. Except, apparently, the coniferous forest surrounding my house.
Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at email@example.com.