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What Time is it in Nature: Red-breasted Nuthatch

February 25, 2013

Red-breasted Nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) have been quite abundant at Prairie Ridge over the last month! These small, active birds are an everyday sight at both our bird feeders and in the trees in the forest.

Red Breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatches are small songbirds with slate gray on top and a cinnamon colored breast.  Like other nuthatches, the Red-breasted Nuthatches have a long, pointed beak and a short tail.  You can distinguish them from the similar White-breasted Nuthatch by looking for the black stripe that runs across the eye.

Red-breasted Nuthatches are woodland birds associated with conifers such as pine, spruce and fir, though they may be observed in forests dominated by oaks, hickories and maples in the northeastern U.S..  They are a predominantly northern species and may spend the entire year in the northernmost parts of their range.  However, they do occasionally migrate further south for the winter, especially in years where there is insufficient food in their northern range.  Though they sometimes move as far south as the Gulf Coast of the U.S. or northern Mexico, you may not see them in our part of North Carolina every winter as we are located further south than their typical range.

These energetic birds are commonly seen at bird feeders during the winter as seeds make up a large part of their winter diet.  In more natural settings where people do not leave seeds out for them, Red-breasted Nuthatches are known to eat pine, spruce, and fir seeds and may build up stores of them so they have enough to eat throughout the winter.  Nuthatches tend to take the heaviest food available, so you may see one carry a large nut or seed to a tree, jam it into a space in the bark, and use its strong beak to crack it open.  During the summer, Red-breasted Nuthatches switch their feeding habits and rely on insects rather than seeds as their primary food source.

Red-breasted Nuthatches do not typically nest in North Carolina, but they are cavity nesters that prefer soft wooded trees (such as aspens) or dead trees.  Females choose the nest site, but both the male and female will excavate a cavity from the tree and apply a layer of sap to the nest entrance that they gather from the forest. Sometimes they apply the resin with a piece of wood, a remarkable example of tool use among birds.  Once the cavity is prepared, the pair will fill the nest with soft nesting materials (sometimes stealing them from other bird nests), and lay 2-8 eggs.

The Red-breasted Nuthatches have been energetic and enthusiastic visitors to the Prairie Ridge bird feeders recently, especially the peanut feeder.  There have been dozens of individuals spotted, so we encourage you to come see them before they start moving back north!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Chris Goforth)

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