Conservation status Numbers probably stable. Has expanded breeding range southward in some eastern states by nesting in plantings of ornamental conifers.
Family Nuthatches
Habitat 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.
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.

Feeding Behavior

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.


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.


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.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

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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.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon

See a fully interactive migration map for this species on the Bird Migration Explorer.

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Songs and Calls

A tinny yank-yank, higher pitched and more nasal than the call of the White-breasted Nuthatch.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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