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Red-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Sitta canadensis

The Red-breasted Nuthatch is more associated with coniferous forests than the more widespread White-breasted Nuthatch. Both characteristically feed by hitching along tree trunks, often head-down, probing for insects in the bark. In Tennessee the Red-breasted Nuthatch is a year round resident in the high elevation forests of the eastern mountains, but is occasionally found statewide in winter when there is an "irruption". A winter irruption of nuthatches happens when the conifer seed crop is low and northerly breeding birds flood south. During irruption winters the Red-breasted Nuthatch usually joins mixed species foraging flocks and readily visits bird feeders. Its range extends from southern Alaska across Canada southward through the western mountains and along the Appalachian Mountains to northern Georgia. It can be found as far south as the Gulf Coast during irruption winters.

Description: This little nuthatch has a white eyebrow stripe and a black stripe through the eye. The top of the head is black, the back is bluish-gray, and the underparts are reddish. Females look like the male except that the top of the head is blue-gray, not black, and she is paler below.
Length: 4.5"
Wingspan: 8.5"
Weight: 0.35 oz

Voice: The song is a series of 6 or more nasal yank yank notes, likened to a tinhorn.

Similar Species:

  • No other nuthatch in North American has a white eyebrow stripe.

Habitat: In Tennessee, they breed in mature, high-elevation coniferous and mixed forests in East Tennessee.

Diet: Insects, spiders, and especially conifer seeds during the winter. They will also visit bird feeders.

Nesting and reproduction: Red-breasted Nuthatches are cavity nesters and are most numerous in high elevation spruce-fir forests in Tennessee, but are also found in hemlock and mixed hemlock-northern hardwood forests.

Clutch Size: Usually 5 to 6 eggs, with a range of 2 to 8.

Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for about 12 days.

Fledging: Both parents feed the young, which fledge when 18 and 21 days old.

Nest: Red-breasted Nuthatches usually excavate their own nest cavities in dead trees, and only occasionally use existing cavities or nest boxes. The cavity is filled with grasses, bark strips, and pine needles, and the cavity entrance is usually smeared with sap.

Status in Tennessee: The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a fairly common year round resident in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. During irruption winters they can be found statewide. The infestation of the balsam woolly adelgid may be temporarily increasing breeding densities because standing dead fir trees have increased the number of potential nesting sites. Populations may decrease as these dead trees decay.

Dynamic map of Red-breasted Nuthatch eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • Unlike other North American nuthatches, the Red-breasted Nuthatch undergoes regular irruptive movements that appear to coincide with a shortage of conifer seeds on the breeding grounds. During irruption years they join mixed species foraging flocks and travel as far south as coastal Louisiana.
  • Red-breasted Nuthatches have the unique habitat of smearing sticky conifer resin around the entrance to their nesting cavity. Males and females bring globules of resin in the tips of their bills, or on small piece of bark which functions as a resin applicator. This represents an example of "tool use." It is thought that this resin functions to deter would-be predators.

Obsolete Historical Names: red-bellied nuthatch

Best places to see in Tennessee: The largest breeding population is in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, also found on Roan Mountain. During irruption winters, may visit bird feeders statewide.

For more information:

National Audubon Society Historical Account


Ghalambor, C. K. and T. E. Martin. 1999. Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), The Birds of North America (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.

Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.

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