At a Glance
With its quiet calls and dense coniferous forest habitat, this nuthatch may be overlooked until it wanders down a tree toward the ground. It often shows little fear of humans, and may come very close to a person standing quietly in a conifer grove. Red-breasted Nuthatches nest farther north and higher in the mountains than their relatives; when winter food crops fail in these boreal forests, they may migrate hundreds of miles to the south.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Nuthatches, Tree-clinging Birds
Arroyos and Canyons, Forests and Woodlands, High Mountains, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets, Urban and Suburban Habitats
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Winter range varies tremendously from year to year, especially in east. Big southward invasions occur in fall of some years, perhaps mainly when cone crops are very poor in the northern forest. In years with good food supply, may remain all winter on nesting territory.
4 1/2 -4 3/4" (11-12 cm). Typical head-down nuthatch behavior, black eye stripe, white eyebrow. Buffy orange below, blue-gray back.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Gray, Orange, Red, White
Rounded, Short, Square-tipped
Songs and Calls
A tinny yank-yank, higher pitched and more nasal than the call of the White-breasted Nuthatch.
Conifer forests; in winter, also other trees. Nesting habitat almost always has many conifers, such as spruce, fir, hemlock, either in pure stands or mixed with deciduous trees. Mature forest preferred, perhaps because old decaying wood needed for nest sites. In migration and winter may appear in any wooded habitat, but conifers always chosen if available.
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5-6, sometimes 4-7. White, spotted with reddish-brown. Female incubates, male brings food to female on and off nest. Incubation period about 12 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings; young leave nest about 2-3 weeks after hatching. Probably 1 brood per year.
Both parents feed nestlings; young leave nest about 2-3 weeks after hatching. Probably 1 brood per year.
Forages by climbing up and down trunk and branches of trees. Sometimes catches flying insects in the air. May cache food items in bark crevices.
Includes both insects and seeds. Feeds mainly on insects and spiders in summer; in winter, eats many seeds, especially those of conifers. Young are fed mostly or entirely on insects and spiders.
Unlike other nuthatches, has a soft musical song, used especially in courtship by male. In courtship display, male turns his back toward female, raises head, droops wings, and sways from side to side. Male also feeds female in courtship. Nest: Both sexes excavate nest cavity in rotten stub or snag, usually 5-40' above ground, rarely much higher. Rarely use old woodpecker holes or birdhouses. Sticky pitch is smeared around entrance to nest hole; this may prevent other creatures from entering. Adults avoid getting stuck in pitch by flying straight into hole. Apparently female does most of work of nest building. Nest in cavity made of soft grass, moss, bark fibers, feathers.
Numbers probably stable. Has expanded breeding range southward in some eastern states by nesting in plantings of ornamental conifers.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Red-breasted Nuthatch
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.