Wild Profile: Meet the red-breasted nuthatch

Published: February 16, 2021

A red-breasted nuthatch perched on a branch in winter By FotoRequest/Shutterstock

Barrel-chested and spiky-beaked, the red-breasted nuthatch stands out among other winter-hardy birds. Why? Thanks to their large, curved, claw-like feet, they can scamper in any direction on tree trunks as they dig for the insects and grubs that other, less nimble birds missed. (You snooze you lose, brown creeper and downy woodpecker!) Nuthatches will also sometimes sneakily trail after other foraging birds, snapping up the bugs that the other species rattled loose but couldn’t capture.

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In winter, squat red-breasted nuthatches—they really have no neck—are fond of clinging to conifer branch tips, using their needle-like bills to pick at the seeds of evergreen cones. If any nut or seed is hard to crack, a nuthatch will hold it against a tree branch, then drive its super-sharp beak into it to burst it open like an egg. Nut. Hatched. Get it?

When it comes time to chisel out a nest, a nuthatch’s spiked bill comes in handy. Ideally, a mating pair would prefer to move into an abandoned woodpecker hole or empty tree cavity, but if they can’t find one, they’ll work together to excavate a nursery. Then they’ll line the rim of the hole with thick blobs of tree sap, to prevent mites, ticks, and other pests from invading, and possibly—some experts believe—to deter predators from raiding the nest. Of course. Who wants sap stuck on their fur?

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