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Natural North Dakota

Red-Breasted Nuthatch

We have had a red-breasted nuthatch coming to our bird feeders regularly this winter. I have not seen more than one at a time, so I am guessing it is a loner. At any rate, this bird always provides some good entertainment while is seemingly goes about its mission.

I suspect that most people are familiar with the more common white-breasted nuthatch. The red-breasted nuthatch is noticeably smaller, and as the name implies, has a reddish or rusty underside. It also has a prominent black strip running through the eye.

The red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is an occasional visitor to our bird feeders throughout the year. They are permanent residents, as the scientific name indicates, in the coniferous forests across much of Canada and also the Rocky Mountains here in the U.S. They may winter southward roughly from North Dakota southeastward (in part when food supplies are low). So, we are on the edge of their permanent range and winter range.

Red-breasted nuthatches are monogamous. And they are cavity nesters. It might surprise you, but other than woodpeckers, red-breasted nuthatches are among a small group of birds that excavate their own cavity. From what I have read (and this might strike a chord!) both the male and female do the excavating, with the female doing most of the work! The cavity will be 2-8 inches deep, between 5-15 feet above the ground in a conifer or perhaps an aspen or other deciduous tree with soft wood. And there is an interesting twist to the nest cavity. They line the entrance, both on the inside and outside, with pitch. It is thought to help repel predators or perhaps competitors.

Red-breasted nuthatches are often heard before they are seen. They have a distinctive call, that is often described as a nasal “annk.” It’s similar to the white-breasted nuthatch’s soft and nasal “what, what, what” with a little higher pitch. So, if you are outside and hear a nasal “aank, annk, annk,” be on the lookout for a red-breasted nuthatch. If you are interested, you can hear recordings of their call on the Cornell University’s All About Birds website. Most of what I hear is their “slow song.”

So make sure your feeders are well stocked (e.g. sunflower seed and suet) and keep your eyes and ears open for this diminutive occasional winter visitor. You may gain a new friend, or perhaps renew an old acquaintance.

~Chuck Lura

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