Red-breasted Nuthatch

Nuthatches are constantly on the move. These little acrobats creep up, down and about tree trunks and branches, circling and zigzagging continually. They never stop long enough to pose for a photograph. Yesterday I finally snapped a couple red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) pictures along the shore of Manzanita Lake (Lassen Volcanic National Park, Shasta County CA).

This small passerine (perching bird) has a long, pointed grey bill and a short tail. Nuthatches do not use their tail for support as woodpeckers do. Passerines have three toes facing forward and one facing backward, an arrangement that facilitates perching. Nuthatches have a large claw on their backward pointing toe enabling them to grip the tree surface and walk downward, head first.

A monotypic species, both male and female red-breasted nuthatches have the same markings, although the females’ (and juveniles’) coloration is duller and paler. Bluish grey on the upper side and rusty cinnamon on the underside, the colorful head pattern is what separates this nuthatch from the other nuthatch species in North America. The red-breasted nuthatch has a black cap, solid white stripe over the eye, a black stripe through the eye and a white throat.

In the summer red-breasted nuthatches eat insects and spiders, which they ferret out from the cracks, fissures and furrows in tree bark or find under flakes of bark. Red-breasted nuthatch nestlings are raised on a diet of insects. During the winter the red-breasted nuthatch’s diet is predominately conifer seeds. Often this nuthatch will cache seeds by shoving them into bark crevices and covering the seeds with lichen, small pebbles or bits of bark.

Red-breasted nuthatches breed in Alaska, Northeastern United States, the West and across Canada. They prefer coniferous forests and also breed in the deciduous woods of the Northeast. Red-breasted nuthatches are resident throughout the year over much of their range, although the northernmost breeders will move further south for the winter. Red-breasted nuthatches are an irruptive species, migrating in response to their food supply. In years of poor conifer cone production, red-breasted nuthatches will migrate in search of food. During irruptive years these nuthatches can be found as far south as the Gulf Coast and into Northern Mexico.

I was delighted to capture images of this energetic little bird at last.

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