Illustration by H. Douglas Pratt
The presence of this nuthatch is typically announced by its nasal calls. The red-breasted nuthatch has the unusual habit of smearing resin around the entrance hole to its nest, presumably to deter predators and competitors from entering the nest. During the breeding season, the red-breasted is usually found in forests dominated by firs and spruces; during migration and winter, it is found in a variety of habitats. When not breeding, the red-breasted can be seen in small flocks with other nuthatches, chickadees, kinglets, and brown creepers. Monotypic. Length 4.5" (11 cm).
Identification Small, with a prominent supercilium that contrasts with darker crown and eye line. Adult male: bold face pattern: Inky black crown and nape; prominent white supercilium extending from sides of forehead to sides of nape and separating the crown from the very broad, black eye line. Upperparts otherwise a deep blue-gray. Wings are edged blue-gray. Whitish chin and throat blend into buff breast and rich buff belly, flanks, and undertail coverts. Adult female: similar to male, but black on head is paler, more lead-colored, often contrasting with blacker nape. Wings are edged dull gray with a brownish or olive tinge. Upperparts are duller gray; underparts are less richly colored. Immature: usually duller than adults of the same sex. Wings coverts, primaries, and secondaries are uniformly brownish gray without edging visible in adults. Many individuals not safely aged under normal field conditions, particularly by late spring when even bright adults have become quite worn. Flight: undulating and resembling a short-tailed woodpecker; white diagonal subterminal band on tail sometimes visible in flight.
Similar Species This is the only North American nuthatch with a broad white supercilium and contrasting broad dark eye line. The Chinese nuthatch is found as close as southern Ussuriland (Rus.) but is unlikely to occur as a vagrant to North America. A vagrant Chinese nuthatch would be differentiated by its ill-defined eye stripe, duller underparts, and lack of a diagonal white subterminal band on the tail.
Voice Call: a nasal yank that is variable but typically repeated. Classically described as similar to a toy tin horn. Short versions are sometimes given in flight. Calls are higher and more nasal than the white-breasted nuthatch’s. Song: a rapid, repeated series of ehn ehn ehn notes; reminiscent of calls.
Status and Distribution Common to abundant. Breeding: northern and subalpine conifers, particularly spruces and firs. Occasionally breeds south of mapped breeding range, usually in conifer plantations or residential neighborhoods with conifers. Migration: irruptive; often moving in 2- to 3-year cycles but variable. Northernmost migrate annually; southernmost are generally resident. First detected away from breeding grounds as early as July (typically earliest in big flight years); peaks in Great Lakes September–mid-October. Spring migration less pronounced, but migrants are seen through May in much of the lower 48 states. Winter: highest densities typically occur along the United States.-Canada border (e.g., Northeast; Michigan-Wisconsin border; south-central British Columbia and northwestern Washington). Vagrant: casual in mainland north Mexico, north Baja California, and west Alaska; Bermuda (4 recs.); Iceland (1 rec.); England (1 rec.).
Population Bird Breeding Survey shows significant increase throughout the breeding range. In the East, resident range is expanding southward.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
Identify your backyard visitors in a flash! Just answer four simple questions to search our database of 150 backyard birds common to Canada and the U.S.
How much do you know about the feathered visitors to your backyard? Put your avian IQ to the test with this quiz.