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Red-breasted Nuthatches find way to put best foot forward (7 photos)

These enterprising birds like to build their own nests in rotting trees rather than reusing cavities or nesting boxes, explains birding columnist

It was fun to hang out close to a Red-breasted Nuthatch as it wedged a sunflower seed into the bark of a tree, and “hatched” a kernel out of the shell. They aren’t shy around people, much like chickadees. Just the same, I felt privileged by the experience.

Besides friendly with people, these nuthatches hang out with other breeds of birds during non-breeding times.

There are four kinds of nuthatches in North America, and two Ontario ones; Red-breasted, and White-breasted. Both species visit feeders. Red-breasted ones used to be called Canada Nuthatch or the Red-bellied Nuthatch, according to Birds of the World.

Besides difference in colouration, at only 11.5 cm total length (4.5 inches) they are noticeably smaller than White-breasted Nuthatches at 15 cm. They also prefer areas where fir and spruce trees are plentiful, eating the seeds in cones, while White-breasted Nuthatches prefer to live near deciduous trees.

Red-breasted Nuthatches are more northerly residents in Ontario than White-breasted ones and are the only North American nuthatch that responds to a shortage of food in winter and move farther south. says, “During irruption years, large numbers of individuals often invade uncharacteristic habitats as far south as the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and the desert washes of northern Mexico. With its propensity for long-distance movements, the Red-breasted Nuthatch is the only North American nuthatch to have crossed the Atlantic to Europe as a vagrant.”

I find the idea of being a vagrant in Europe curious. It brings the idea of hitch-hiking across Europe to mind. It may not be a regular pattern of Red-breasted Nuthatches but it makes them distinct among the many backyard birds that travel to other countries for the winter on a north-south direction.

These enterprising birds like to build their own nests in rotting trees rather than reusing cavities or nesting boxes. I did see one check out the bluebirds boxes but perhaps it was assessing the build rather than contemplating moving in.

What’s kind of interesting is they line the opening of their nest cavity with resin from conifers. It is believed this is to deter other birds and predators. In order not to be covered by the sticky stuff themselves, the fly directly into the hole.

This kind of fun and challenging way to approach home seems to fit with their other acrobatic manoeuvres. Nuthatches creep along branches and climb up and down vertical trunks of trees. Woodpeckers climb up trunks, but they are not able to go headlong down trees.

What gives nuthatches this advantage in foraging for insects, “hatching” seeds and hiding some for later are their feet, or claws. They have three “toes” that point toward the front of the bird, and one large one (hallux) at the back that points backwards.

They use only the three forward toes to go upwards. When climbing down, they use the large back toe of one foot to grab the bark for balance as they move the other foot, then repeat. How cool is that?

Although they have a range of vocalizations, the fast repetitive “yank, yank” sound of the Red-breasted Nuthatch will help you find this amazing little bird in forested areas, and perhaps in your yard.

Rosaleen Egan is a freelance journalist, a storyteller, and a playwright. She blogs on her website.


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