ALWAYS IN SEASON: Nuthatch makes perfect quarry for winter birding

The red-breasted nuthatch may be the perfect winter quest for birders locally. This is definitely the less common nuthatch of northern winters. Its close relative, the white-breasted nuthatch is much more likely to be seen. Of course, this makes ...

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs portrait for Always in Season column

The red-breasted nuthatch may be the perfect winter quest for birders locally.

This is definitely the less common nuthatch of northern winters. Its close relative, the white-breasted nuthatch is much more likely to be seen.

Of course, this makes the white-breasted bird a kind of commonplace.

And the red-breasted bird is a desirable sighting.

The birds are similar, but a moment's study will identify either species. Both are -- well, cute.. But the red-breasted is cuter because it is less frequent.


White-breasted nuthatches are among the most dependable of winter birds in the Red River Valley. This doesn't mean they are the most common, of course, but on any given day in any given place, a white-breasted nuthatch is likely to occur, if conditions are right.

Here is an important distinction between the white and red-breasted species of the nuthatch.

White-breasted nuthatches prefer deciduous trees, the kinds that lose their leaves in fall. Such trees line our streets and fill our shelterbelts.

Red-breasted nuthatches prefer evergreens.

In the Red River Valley, deciduous trees outnumber evergreens by a considerable margin.

But where there are evergreens, there may be red-breasted nuthatches.

Both species come to bird feeders, eagerly taking sunflower seeds and suet.

A feeder placed near a planting of evergreens is more likely to attract a red-breasted nuthatch.


These two species are quite similar.

Both are nuthatches, and so they exhibit nuthatch behavior, which includes the ability to hang upside -down. This is endearing, of course, and helps make the white-breasted nuthatch a popular species .

Both have sharp, upturned bills that give them a quizzical expression, adding to the "cuteness factor."

White-breasted nuthatches are a bit larger than the red-breasted variety, but this isn't a reliable way to distinguish the birds.

Neither is the color of the breast. Some white-breasted nuthatches have reddish tones in their breast plumage, especially toward the rear -- an area perhaps more appropriately called the belly (or even the butt).

And some red-breasted nuthatches are almost white-breasted. Both species are blue gray on the back, and both have black caps. Still, they are pretty easy to tell apart.

To accomplish this, have a look at the face of the bird. White-breasted nuthatches have white faces, in which the black eye stands out prominently. The faces of red-breasted nuthatches are striped, black cap, white stripe then black stripe. This last passes through and obscures the eye.

The two nuthatch species also sound a little different, and this can be an important aid in finding red-breasted nuthatches. The nasal "wonk-wonk" of the white-breasted nuthatch is a familiar sound on winter days in our region. The red-breasted call is similar, but shorter, more nasal and perhaps a bit higher-tched (though this is hard for an old guy like me to appreciate).


Listen carefully on quiet days, and you may recognize this difference. Then, look for the red-breasted nuthatch.

This year, reports of red-breasted nuthatches have been fairly frequent. We found them on the Christmas Bird Count at Icelandic State Park, and they were seen on the Grand Forks count, too. I've also had reports from the Turtle Mountains and from the Devils Lake area.

This proves a point that makes red-breasted nuthatches much-sought and much-appreciated among prairie birders.

Though nowhere common in our area, red-breasted nuthatches can show up almost anywhere hereabouts. Seeing one is more a matter of serendipity than of effort. You shouldn't have to drive to find one.

My sense is that this species is becoming more dependable, if not more common. It's been seen on the past 17 Christmas counts in Grand Forks, usually in fairly small numbers -- but in 2007, a total of 47 of these birds were seen, more than three times the total in any other year. This year, six were seen -- far closer to the norm, and to all of our expectations.

In general, red-breasted nuthatches seem to be more numerous early in the winter. Perhaps they move farther south as the cold advances. Yet, a red-breasted nuthatch remains a possibility in January -- and still a welcome sighting.

For these reasons, the red-breasted nuthatch is among the most anticipated species -- because it's somewhat rare but still quite possible to find, and rather similar to another species but still quite easy to identify.

All that makes the red-breasted nuthatch pretty much the prefect quarry for a winter day afield.


Mike Jacobs is editor and publisher of the Herald.

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