Red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)

Male red-breasted nuthatch
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST

Top facts

  • The red-breasted nuthatch is one of the only non-woodpecker species to excavate nest cavities.
  • Tree resin is applied to the entrance of the nest cavity of the red-breasted nuthatch to deter predators from entering.
  • When it is foraging, the red-breasted nuthatch walks up and down tree branches, probing into crevices for food.
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Red-breasted nuthatch fact file

Red-breasted nuthatch description

GenusSitta (1)

A plump, broad-winged, short-tailed songbird, the red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is one of the only non-woodpecker species known to excavate nest cavities into wood (2). The male red-breasted nuthatch has blue-grey upperparts, reddish-brown underparts and a black cap, which is bordered by two conspicuous white eyebrow stripes (2) (3). There is a bold black line extending from the base of the bill, through the eye onto the back of the neck (2) (3), and the cheeks, ear-coverts and throat are white. The long, pointed bill of the red-breasted nuthatch is bicoloured, with a black upper mandible and a pale blue-grey lower mandible (4).

The female red-breasted nuthatch is slightly smaller than the male, with a dark grey-blue head and a thinner, lighter line extending from the bill to the back of the neck, which is usually darker than the cap and may be fringed with grey feathers. The upperparts of the female red-breasted nuthatch are slightly darker than in the male and the underparts are paler. The legs and feet of both sexes are dusky grey-green or brown-olive and the eyes are brown (3) (4).

The juvenile red-breasted nuthatch is similar in appearance to the adult (3) (4), but with a yellow tinge at the base of the mandible, which is lost during the first few weeks of life (4). The cap is less defined than in the adult and there are black fringes on the feathers of the underparts and upperparts (3) (4). The plumage and head markings are paler than the adult and the eyebrow stripe, chin and cheeks may be spotted with dark markings (3) (4). After leaving the nest, the legs of the juvenile red-breasted nuthatch are pale, but gradually gain colour over time (4).

The horn-like call of the red-breasted nuthatch is a nasal and excitable ‘yank-yank(2) (3), which varies in speed and is thought to be used for both territoriality and courtship (3) (4). The sound is often compared to tiny tin horns being played in the trees (2) (3).

Length: 11 cm (2)
Wingspan: 18 - 20 cm (2)
8 - 13 g (2)

Red-breasted nuthatch biology

The breeding season of the red-breasted nuthatch occurs between late April and June (4), when the male and female form a monogamous pair after a courtship display by the male, which involves flying, feeding the female, singing and erecting its crest (2) (3). In sedentary populations, the pair may remain mated for more than one season, but pair bonds in migratory populations may only be seasonal (3) (4). Aggressive chasing displays may be performed during the breeding season if non-mated males or other hole-nesting birds approach the pair’s territory (2) (3).

The female red-breasted nuthatch excavates the majority of the nest over 5 to 16 days (3), during which time she is fed by the male, who only does a small amount of excavation (2) (3). Once the cavity has been hollowed out, the female adds a base of grass, bark and pine needles, which is then topped with fur, feathers, grass and bark (2) (4). The entrance to the nest is coated with resin from conifer trees, which is occasionally applied using a twig (2) (3) (4). The resin is thought to deter competitors or predators from entering the nest (2) (3).

The female red-breasted nuthatch usually lays an average clutch of six eggs between mid-April and early May (2) (3). The eggs are white, cream or pink-white and are speckled red-brown, purple-red or brown. The eggs are incubated by the female, who is regularly fed by the male, and usually hatch after 12 to 13 days. The male and female red-breasted nuthatch both feed the young with insects for 18 to 21 days after they hatch (2) (3) (4). After this period, the young fledge the nest and remain with the adults for up to two weeks, before joining mixed-species flocks (3). The red-breasted nuthatch only raises one brood per year (2).

In winter, the diet of the red-breasted nuthatch consists mainly of seeds from coniferous and deciduous trees. During the breeding season, insects and other arthropods are also taken, including beetles, caterpillars, spiders, ants, earwigs and flies, which are also fed to nestlings (2) (3) (4). When foraging, this species walks up and down large tree branches probing into crevices for food (3), and is known to store food for times of low availability. The red-breasted nuthatch is also regularly seen around bird feeders (2) (4)


Red-breasted nuthatch range

The range of the red-breasted nuthatch stretches south from Alaska and western Canada, through the United States to Mexico (3) (4) (5). This species can sometimes be found as a vagrant in Iceland and the United Kingdom (5).

The red-breasted nuthatch is one of the very few nuthatches to migrate and is the only nuthatch to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Southward migration usually begins in July or August, with arrival at the wintering grounds occurring in November. The returning northward flight usually occurs between March and May (4). Although certain populations migrate, others are resident and will only move to a different part of their range in response to food availability (3)


Red-breasted nuthatch habitat

The red-breasted nuthatch is mostly found in coniferous forests where there is an abundance of spruce and fir trees. It can also be found in mixed woodlands, and less frequently in deciduous forests (2) (3) (4), as well as orchards, parks, plantations and gardens during winter (2) (4). In certain parts of its range, the red-breasted nuthatch can be found up to elevations of 3,075 metres (4)


Red-breasted nuthatch status

The red-breasted nuthatch is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern


Red-breasted nuthatch threats

Although it is a common species (2), the red-breasted nuthatch is vulnerable to the removal of dead and diseased wood within its habitat, which decreases the availability of nesting and roosting sites and reduces the diversity of the habitat (2) (3). Collisions with tall man-made structures such as buildings and towers also poses a threat to this species (3).


Red-breasted nuthatch conservation

There are not known to be any specific conservation measures currently in place for the red-breasted nuthatch. However, its populations would benefit from a change in logging practices where soft, decaying trees are not removed from forests, so that nests and roosts can be excavated. More research on the red-breasted nuthatch’s migration, reproduction and threats would also be beneficial for its future survival (3).


Find out more

Find out more about the red-breasted nuthatch:



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A major grouping of animals that includes crustaceans, insects and arachnids. All arthropods have paired jointed limbs and a hard external skeleton (exoskeleton).
Deciduous forest
Forest consisting mainly of deciduous trees, which shed their leaves at the end of the growing season.
The circle of small feathers covering the ear opening of a bird. Also called auriculars.
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
In birds, the lower jaw and beak, but the term is also used to denote the two parts of the beak.
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a group that occupies and defends an area.
An area occupied and defended by an animal, a pair of animals or a group.
An individual found outside the normal range of the species.


  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2012)
  2. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Red-breasted nuthatch (June, 2012)
  3. Ghalambor, C.K. and Martin, T.E. (1999) Red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). In: Poole, A. (Ed) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab or Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
  4. Harrap, S. and Quinn, D. (1996) Tits, Nuthatchers and Treecreepers. Christopher Helm, London.
  5. BirdLife International (June, 2012)

Image credit

Male red-breasted nuthatch  
Male red-breasted nuthatch

© S & D & K Maslowski /

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