Red-breasted nuthatch surprise visit

In Birds by couchiching

By  David A. Homer

I have always lamented that we have never had red- breasted nuthatches come to our bird feeders.  Although the occasional Red-breasted is identified during our local Christmas Bird count, we seldom see them in our vicinity as their preferred habitat is a coniferous forest and we live in an area forested with a mix of deciduous and conifer trees.  Most of my encounters and all my photographs of these diminutive little hustlers have been taken in Algonquin Park, where they abound in the conifers and the abundant food supply they offer.

Smaller than the common white- breasted nuthatch, and bearing a  rufous coloured breast  and a black stripe along the eye line, they along with black- capped chickadees and gray jays, are very much candidates for those much sought after photographic images of birds feeding out of an open hand, filled with various seeds.

From years of study, I have concluded that Birders may have more serendipitous moments or events than any other social group in our society. I was blessed with one  such event a couple of weeks ago….a red- breasted nuthatch appeared at one of  our feeders, and to make this even more exciting, he has stayed!  And what a joy he has been to us.  I say he, because there is only one individual, and the male of the species has a black cap on his head while the female has a bluish-black cap and as with most other avian species, she is rather drab compared to the male!

Seldom if ever taking a break, he picks out his favourite seed of the moment and off he flies to neighbouring trees to insert the seed into cracks in the bark.  He has about a dozen favourite trees that I have been able to identify, but there are likely more.  Not aware that the feeders will be filled on a regular basis, he must make sure that he has a sufficient food cache to last him for the winter months. Like some other avian species, he is extremely acrobatic; hanging upside down on one leg from a branch, climbing down and around  tree trunks and branches and flying with such acceleration it makes one’s head spin just thinking about flights in fighter jets!

During courtship, the male will align himself in front of the female with his back to her and then sway back and forth from side to side.  He will also bring the female food consisting mainly of insects and spiders.  Both sexes engage in excavating soft rotten wood from stubs or cracks in a tree.  They will smear conifer resin around the entrance hole to prevent intruders from the nest which the female alone constructs from mosses, grasses and feathers. To avoid getting into the resin, they flight straight into the hole.  The female will lay 4-5 white eggs with reddish spots, incubating them for about two weeks.  The male will feed the female during the incubation period.  The young will fledge in three weeks after hatching.

If food supplies are available in their prime habitat, there is no need to migrate, however if cone crops are poor, they will move to locations where food is accessible.

Keep a close eye on your seed feeders this fall and winter; you too may have these delightful little nuthatches visiting your neighbourhood.  If you discover one, pick a calm day, take down your feeders for a few minutes and then put some peanuts and black oil sunflower seeds in your hand…keep perfectly still, and you may just have one of those serendipitous moments in your life.

By the way, don’t forget to put the feeders back in place!

David A. Homer is a board member and volunteer with The Couchiching Conservancy which currently helps protect more than 10,000 acres of special natural lands in the Couchiching region.  For more information visit or call 705-326-1620.