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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

How to tell the white from the red: The red-breasted nuthatch has a black eyeline and buff-to-red-colored breast feathers. © John Weber
How to tell the white from the red: The red-breasted nuthatch has a black eyeline and buff-to-red-colored breast feathers. © John Weber

December 2004

Treetop ornaments

Like kids on holiday, red-breasted nuthatches poke and probe
around evergreens looking for winter goodies.

Anita Carpenter

Trees have long since shed their colorful leaves. The milkweed pods are empty and grape vines are stripped of purple fruit. Life on this once-bustling landscape is now on hold, but not for everything.

From atop a towering balsam fir, a thin, high-pitched, eeen, eeen, eeen gently breaks the winter silence. I look up to find a diminutive blue and rusty bird clinging to a snow-dusted bough, looking much like a holiday ornament. This ornament, a red-breasted nuthatch, is actively attacking what is left of a disintegrating cone. Using its long, tapered bill, this bundle of energy probes the cone for seeds. Cone bracts rain down as discovered seeds are quickly eaten. Then with a couple of quick wingbeats, the ornament flies off to another cone-laden branch.

I'm always delighted to see red-breasted nuthatches as they only visit us in winter. Some years bring many while in other winters the nomadic birds are scarce. Whether or not they arrive to entertain us depends upon the cone supply in the northern conifers. If fir and spruce cones are abundant, the tiny sprites stay up north and dine well. If the cone crop is inadequate, the birds move south searching for food. Some years they may migrate only as far as central and southern Wisconsin to satisfy their needs, while other years they may bypass us and leave the state to delight bird watchers to our south.

When not dining on cone seeds, red-breasted nuthatches spend their time twisting, turning, spiraling up, down, around, behind and under conifer tree trunks and branches, gleaning for insect eggs and larvae, and stored seeds. Unlike woodpeckers, red-breasted nuthatches are equally adept at hitching up a tree trunk as they are at moving headfirst down the trunk.

Red-breasted nuthatches, Sitta canadensis, are fairly easy birds to identify. On their stocky, 4-1/2-inch frame, they sport a short tail and neck, proportionately large head and long, black bill. Each red-breasted nuthatch has rusty red on its breast that extends to under its tail. Its blue-gray back is the color of ominous storm clouds. The most definitive characteristic is its black eye line topped with a white stripe. The only species likely to be confused with this bird is its larger cousin, the white-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis. White-breasted nuthatches are year-round residents preferring habitats associated with deciduous trees, not conifers. The 6 -inch-long white-breasted nuthatches have white breasts and a bit of rusty red on the belly and under the tail. They also have blue-gray backs, but their white cheeks and chin stand out for they lack the black eye line and white stripe.

Although red-breasted nuthatches like to frustrate us by staying in treetops or quickly disappearing from view as they spiral to the tree's far side, they are also eager to accept handouts at sunflower seed and suet feeders. They zip in, grab a seed, pivot and zip out. They may either cache the seed in a tree crevice or hammer on it to extract the kernel. Their energy level, like that of chickadees, is on fast-forward and definitely livens up a winter scene. These nuthatches may linger until spring's warmth lures them back to their preferred northern boreal forest of spruce and fir.

In the short northern summer, a pair of red-breasted nuthatches excavates a nest cavity up to eight inches deep in a dead snag or tree branch. The cavity is lined with grasses and mosses. The tiny entrance hole is often smeared with conifer resin, a behavior thought to prevent insects, small mammals or other birds from entering the cavity. After an energetic courtship of much talking, pivoting and wing flapping, the female lays four to seven white eggs, each decorated with red-brown spots. Eggs hatch after a 12-day incubation period with the young leaving the nest about 20 days later. The young stay with their parents in a noisy family group for several weeks. One brood is raised per year.

Of the four nuthatch species found in the United States, the red-breasteds are the most migratory. In winter, they frequently join the company of chickadees, woodpeckers and finches as they move through the forest. Although the tiny nuthatches blend in with the trees, they are fairly vocal in winter, so I know they are about, even if I can't see them. I hope the treetop ornaments grace us with their lively presence this winter.

For birding and tromping about, winter is Anita Carpenter's favorite season outdoors.