Sitta canadensisred-breasted nuthatch

Geographic Range

Sitta canadensis is native throughout the Nearctic region. It is the only migratory species in the family Sittidae. Its northern breeding range includes southeast Alaska, southern Yukon, southeast Mackenzie Valley, central Quebec, and Newfoundland in Canada. In the United States it breeds from central Minnesota, Wisconsin, northern Michigan, and the southern Oregon border to northern California. On the east coast S. canadensis breeds from southern New York through Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. It migrates irregularly to southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and northern Florida to the Gulf Coast. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Terres, 1982)


Red-breasted nuthatches prefer mature, partly open coniferous or mixed conifer-deciduous stands for breeding. They favor stands that have a tall, dense canopy and a dense understory of saplings. This structure provides protection from unfavorable environmental conditions and predators, and provides a greater abundance of arthropods.

Researchers found that nuthatches prefer ponderosa pine and incense cedar, which both have a rough bark surface that supports a diversity of arthropods. Smooth bark species, such as black oak and white fir are not visited regularly by nuthatches. (Adams and Morrison, 1993)

Physical Description

Red-breasted nuthatches are small nuthatches with compact bodies, short tails and necks, and a long tapered bill. They have very sturdy toes and claws that allow them to climb down trees headfirst or to move along the undersides of branches with their back to the ground. They average 11.5 cm in length and have an average mass of 10 grams. This is the only North American nuthatch that has a broad black stripe through the eye and a white stripe above it. Other distinguishing characteristics include a black cap on the head, a bluish gray back, and an underside washed with a rusty red or brown color. The chin, cheeks, and sides of the neck are white and the tail is characterized by white bands and dark tips on the outer tail feathers. Their wings are long and pointed and have ten primary flight feathers.

There is little difference between the sexes, except the female has a bluish black cap and paler underparts. Juveniles are similar to adults, but their head markings and underparts are duller in color. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Terres, 1982)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male more colorful
  • Average mass
    10 g
    0.35 oz
  • Average mass
    11.2 g
    0.39 oz
  • Average length
    11.5 cm
    4.53 in


Red-breasted nuthatches are monogamous. They form breeding pairs beginning in winter or spring, and stay together for a year or more. Each pair defends a territory through the breeding season, and possibly through the year if the cone crop is good. In order to attract a female, males perform courtship displays that include raising their head and tail, drooping the wings, and fluffing the back feathers. A male sways from side to side and sings with his back turned toward the female. During courtship, males sing up to 50 times per minute from the tops of trees and potential nest trees. They also bring food to the female during courtship. (Ghalambor and Martin, 1999a; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b; Stalloup, 1968; Terres, 1982)

Red-breasted nuthatches begin breeding in their first year. Both adults take part in nest building. They usually dig a cavity in a tree stump or a branch of a dead tree, or occupy a vacant woodpecker hole. They use smeared resin to protect the inside of the nest, allowing just enough room for their body widths. This prevents insects, small mammals, and other birds from entering the nest cavity. Inside the cavity is a cup nest built with grasses, roots, mosses, shredded bark, and plant fibers.

Breeding occurs from mid-April through early August, with peak activity from May through July. Red-breasted nuthatches raise one brood per year. The female lays 5 to 8 (usually 6) pinkish-white eggs that are speckled with a reddish brown color. One egg is laid each day. The female incubates the eggs, which hatch after 12 to 13 days. During incubation, the male provides food to the female, allowing her to spend more time on the nest. After the eggs are hatched, the altricial nestlings are brooded for the first few days by the female. The male brings food to both the female and young. The young leave the nest 18 to 21 days after hatching. They become fully independent about 2 weeks after fledging. (Ghalambor and Martin, 1999a; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b; Stalloup, 1968; Terres, 1982)

  • Breeding interval
    Red-breasted nuthatches breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs from mid-April through early August, with peak activity from May through July.
  • Range eggs per season
    5 to 8
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    12 to 13 days
  • Range fledging age
    18 to 21 days
  • Average time to independence
    14 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Because nuthatch chicks are hidden in nest cavities, little is known about the development. The newly hatched young are altricial, which means they are immobile, have closed eyes, and must be cared for by the adult. The female broods the chicks for the first week after hatching. During this time, the male brings food to the nest for the female and chicks. During the nestling and fledgling periods, both adults feed the chicks. They also remove the fecal sacs of the chicks from the nest. The chicks typically leave the nest 18 to 21 days after hatching, but may remain partially dependent on their parents for food for another two weeks. (Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b; Terres, 1982)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female


The oldest known red-breasted nuthatch lived for at least 7 years and 6 months. (Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b; USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, 2002)


Instead of using the tail for support, as many bark gleaning species do, red-breasted nuthatches climb with one foot higher to hang from, and the other lower for support. They are able to climb headfirst down trees using this method. Climbing down trees provides a greater opportunity to find food in bark crevices that are overlooked by species that climb up trees.

Red-breasted nuthatches are extremely territorial during the breeding season. Pairs may even remain together throughout the winter to defend food territories if resources are plentiful. When resources are not plentiful, nuthatches migrate and spend the winter in mixed flocks. Red-breasted nuthatches are longer-lived and less fecund than white-breasted nuthatches, and so they place greater value on their own survival and future breeding rather than on their offspring's' survival. Ghalambor and Martin (1999) conducted an experiment to determine risk-taking behaviors associated with the red-breasted versus white-breasted nuthatches. Both respond to predators by increasing the time between nest visits and aborting some nest visits. However, the red-breasted nuthatches respond more to predators of adults rather than to predators of eggs, and the white-breasted had the opposite response. This suggests that life history directly affects parental care behaviors in this species.

Male threat displays are similar to the displays used for the courtship of females. Threat displays include a posture with drooping wings, an erect tail, and raised crest feathers. The head may be lowered and the tail is fanned with a pendulum-like motion. Agonistic behavior includes both aggressive and combat displays

Food shortages in the north cause irruptions of red-breasted nuthatches, which are southward invasions in unusually large numbers. They appear to be irregular events triggered by alternating seasons of crop failure. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999a; Terres, 1982)

Home Range

There is no information available on the home range of red-breasted nuthatches. (Ehrlich, et al., 1988; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999a; Terres, 1982)

Communication and Perception

Red-breasted nuthatches use a variety of physical displays and vocalizations to communicate. The most common call of red-breasted nuthatches is a nasal "yank-yank" call that has been describes as sounding like a small tin horn. Both males and females have a broad range of other calls that are softer and used less frequently. (Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b)

Food Habits

Red-breasted nuthatches' diet consists of pine, spruce, and other conifer seeds and insects including beetles, wasps, caterpillars, crane flies, moths, and insect eggs. In general, the diet consists of mostly arthropods during the breeding season, and conifer seeds during the non-breeding season. The young are fed exclusively insects.

Nuthatches are bark-gleaning birds. They primarily forage on trunks, but also use a wide variety of substrates including branches, stumps, and the ground. They break food apart by wedging it into bark crevices and breaking smaller pieces off, or by prying seeds open with their strong beaks.

Nuthatches regularly store food during the fall and winter. They cache food under bark, in holes in tree trunks, and sometimes on the ground. They obtain water by drinking from small pools of water. (Adams and Morrison, 1993; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b; Terres, 1982)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts


Red-breasted nuthatches are preyed upon by a number of bird and mammal species. Predators of adult red-breasted nuthatches include sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper's hawks, merlins, northern pygmy-owls, spotted owls, red squirrels and weasels. Steller's jays, housewrens, gray-necked chipmunks, weasels and mice are known predators of eggs and nestlings.

Red-breasted nuthatches defend their nest from predators by surrounding the entrance to the nest with pine pitch. They also join other small birds in mobbing potential predators, such as hawks and jays. When a nest is threatened, the female may jump out of her nest cavity and perch near the entrance to perform an anti-predator display. She spreads her wings and sways slowly back and forth to distract the predator from the nest. (Ghalambor and Martin, 1999a; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b)

Ecosystem Roles

Adams and Morrison (1993) reported that red-breasted nuthatches may be important in the seed dispersal and germination of forest trees, based on observations of seed caching (localized storaging of food). (Adams and Morrison, 1993)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Red-breasted nuthatches eat a variety of insects, including beetles, wasps, and flies, that humans consider to be pests. (Terres, 1982)

  • Positive Impacts
  • controls pest population

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Red-breasted nuthatches have no known negative effect on humans.

Conservation Status

Populations of red-breasted nuthatches are increasing overall, but declining locally in some areas. Red-breasted nuthatches depend on habitat with standing dead trees and a variety of species. Logging and management practices that remove dead trees or reduce plant diversity have a negative impact on nuthatch populations. (Adams and Morrison, 1993; Ghalambor and Martin, 1999b)

Other Comments

The word 'nuthatch' may come from a Eurasian relative's fondness for hazelnuts, or for their ability to hack open nuts and seeds. (Terres, 1982)


Kari Kirschbaum (author, editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Cara Sands (author), Western Maryland College, Randall L. Morrison (editor), Western Maryland College.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

stores or caches food

places a food item in a special place to be eaten later. Also called "hoarding"


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


uses sight to communicate


Adams, E., M. Morrison. 1993. Effects of forest stand structure and composition on red-breasted nuthatches and brown creepers. Journal of Wildlife Management, 57(3): 616-633.

Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of Northern American Birds. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc.

Ghalambor, C., T. Martin. 1999. Parental investment strageties in two species of nuthatch vary with stage-specific predation risk and reproductive effort. Animal Behavior, 60: 263-276.

Ghalambor, C., T. Martin. 1999. Red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). Pp. 1-28 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 459. Philadelphia, PA: The Birds of North America, Inc.

Stalloup, P. 1968. Spatio-temporal relationships of nuthatches and woodpeckers in ponderosa pine forests of Colorado. Ecology, 49: 831-843.

Terres, J. 1982. The Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Random House Inc.

USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, 2002. "Longevity Records of North American Birds" (On-line). Accessed 22 April 2003 at