Red-breasted Nuthatch

D. Arndt

Common Name: Red-breasted Nuthatch

Latin Name: Sitta canadensis

Size and identifying feature: 11cm in length. Could be confused with a chickadee at first glance but look for them hanging on tree trunks head facing down 😊

Sounds: ni-ni-ni, yank-yank-yank

Habitat, Diet and Ecosystem Role

Range: Found across North America either year-round or as a winter resident

Habitat: Natural habitat is primarily conifer forests but can be found in mixed forests but also a frequent backyard visitor.

Diet: Insects and conifer seeds. Will also visit backyard feeders.

Ecosystem Role: Important insect eater, particularly for spruce budworm. Nuthatches can be seen sticking their beaks under bark to get at insects and in years when spruce budworm is high, nuthatches can be seen picking them off in large numbers, preventing trees from getting too damaged.

Forest Path

White-breasted Nuthatch - A. Elliott

Fun Facts

Nuthatches can be distinguished from other birds by their upside down posture on trees.

Nuthatch migration depends on food availability. If there is lots of food, the birds won’t migrate but if food is scarce, they will shift their range in the winter. This is known as irruption. Snowy owls are another irruptive species which can be found in great numbers around Calgary some years and barely any the next.  

Red-breasted nuthatches are small but mighty. During nesting season they can be seen chasing off larger birds, aggressively defending their territory.

The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a cavity nester. It can make its own nest or will use a cavity previously made by a woodpecker or a bird box. They often will smear sticky sap or resin around the outside of their nest hole to which may help ward off pests like ants.

Nuthatches are easy to attract to backyard nest boxes. For their safety, ensure the hole is no bigger than 1-1/8" in size. Nest predators including house sparrows may destroy the nest if they can fit in. 

In the summer nuthatches eat primarily invertebrates including spiders, ants, caterpillars and beetles while in the winter they switch to a diet of conifer seeds although they will stash insects under tree bark to be eaten when times get tough. They can be encouraged to visit backyard feeders with sunflower seeds. 

Red-breasted nuthatches typically have one brood per season with 1-8 chicks. Nestlings stay in the nest for less than 2 weeks before fledging! They aren't on their own though, both parents will continue to care for the young and teach them throughout the summer. Nesting success depends on the availability of their invertebrate food so don't spray for bugs, let nuthatches be your natural pest control! 

Red-breasted nuthatches are one of two nuthatch species in Alberta. The other is the slightly larger white-breasted nuthatch. The calls are similar but the white-breasted has an almost entirely white front compared to the red-breast and black eye streaks of the red-breasted.

How are Red-breasted Nuthatches faring in Calgary? 

Every May citizen scientists led by Nature Calgary perform a spring bird count. Not only do these counts help estimate the presence of birds now but over time these numbers can help identify trends in bird populations as the city continues to grow and change. The count covers an 80km radius from the center of the city as seen in the image below. To the right are population trend numbers for Red-breasted Nuthatches between 1979 and 2021

The Christmas Bird Count is another way that citizen scientists are helping keep track of birds across the world. Every year people are invited to document birds both in their yards and while they are out over a specific 24 hour period in December. This past December, 200 Red-breasted Nuthatches were recorded, a 48% decrease over the 10 year average.