Bird of the Week

Photo courtesy Charles Martinez

This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the red-breasted nuthatch.

When cone crops are good, this tiny bird stays year-round in northern Canada and the mountains of the west. Its scientific name, sitta canadensis, is a reference to the red-breasted’s more northerly breeding range than that of its cousin, the white-breasted. Of the three nuthatch species that we see here, the red-breasted is the least common.

In winter, this bird may be found across the United States, spreading from coniferous forests into deciduous woods. Especially in the east, a poor cone crop in Canadian forests will predict an irruption of these nuthatches in southward directions.

Like many birds, red-breasted nuthatches require the extra protein of insects and spiders in their summer diet, but conifer seeds are the staple in winter. After wedging the seed in a bark crevice, the nuthatch cracks it open with its strong bill. Nuthatches will visit feeders and open sunflower seeds in the same manner.

Gripping with a large claw on its backward facing toe, this active bird moves in all directions on a tree. It will spread its wings and sway back and forth to ward off larger birds. The red-breasted is blue-gray above and rusty red below. Its black crown and eyeline are cut by a white eyebrow and its neck and tail are short. Females are paler-colored versions of the male.

This bird is a cavity-nester, using an abandoned woodpecker hole or excavating its own in dead trees or tree parts. To defend the nest from intruders and parasites, the male and female collect globs of resin and coat the outside and inside of the entrance hole. They often use a piece of bark to apply the resin, an example of tool use by birds.

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