Bird Watcher's General Store

“A Cape Cod Destination Icon For 40 Years”

Red-breasted Nuthatches

Dear Bird Folks,

What is with all the Red-breasted Nuthatches on my feeders lately? We used to see one occasionally, but now they are the most common bird in the yard. Did they have an exceptionally successful breeding season?

– Terrance, Sandwich, MA


You aren’t kidding, Terrance,

If anyone reading this column has ever wanted to see a Red-breasted Nuthatch (and why wouldn’t you?), this fall is a great time see one, or two or a googolplex of them. These little birds are everywhere. Traditionally, nuthatches favor pines, but right now they can also be found in deciduous trees, on shrubs and bushes and climbing on Halloween decorations. And if you can’t see them, you most certainly can hear them; they love to chat constantly while foraging. My wife just came home from a walk and said she could hear a “cacophony” of nuthatches. I’m not sure if she used that word correctly (or even pronounced it right), but I knew what she meant. There’s a lot of Red-breasted Nuthatches out there.

If you were to look at old photos of Cape Cod, you’d notice it was kind of ugly around here for a while. Back in the day, we had more sand and barren areas than we had woodland habitat. That all changed when the pine and oak trees moved back. The returning vegetation not only made the Cape more aesthetically pleasing, but it also provided increased habitat for several tree-loving birds, including woodpeckers, creepers and nuthatches. New England has two nuthatch species: white-breasted and red-breasted. For a long time, the White-breasted Nuthatch was more commonly seen on the Cape. The gray-backed birds, with the bright white bellies, are regular visitors to both our feeders and our trees. Their habit of descending headfirst makes them comical to watch. But as lively and entertaining as they are, White-breasted Nuthatches seem downright sedate when compared to their smaller, more energetic and redder cousins.

Red-breasted Nuthatches are in a relentless state of acrobatic motion, like wannabe Cirque du Soleil performers. They will land on a feeder upside down, right side up, sideways or a combination of all three. And they never shut up. One or two birds give a steady “ink, ink, ink” call, but when an entire flock is excited about something, their voices become higher and squeakier, sounding like a party at R2-D2’s house. Weighing a measly 1/3 of an ounce, the petite Red-breasted Nuthatch is likely to be the tiniest non-hummingbird on your feeder. And much like hummingbirds, there aren’t many other birds nuthatches can pick on, so they pick on each other. But while hummers do more chasing than actual fighting, nuthatches often scuffle until one of them eventually gives way and yells, “Uncle!” (Uncle? Do people still say that…and why?)

The return of their habitat is one of the reasons why we’ve been seeing so many Red-breasted Nuthatches recently, but there is more to it than that. There once was a time when Red-breasted Nuthatches were known as “Canada Nuthatches,” because Canada is where most of them breed. As I mentioned earlier, nuthatches are attracted to pine trees, but not because they enjoy the lovely pine fragrance; it’s all about pinecones and pinecone seeds. Canada’s considerable conifer forests enable the nuthatches to survive harsh northern winters. But every few years conifers apparently get tired of generating all those cones and take the year off. This leaves thousands of Canadian nuthatches in search of new food options. So, they head south. Since the middle of August, countless numbers of nuthatches have been streaming into the Eastern U.S. looking for greener (or in this case, conier) pastures. The year of the Red-breasted Nuthatch had begun!

When these nuthatches first started coming to my yard, I could tell right away they were from out of town (but not because of the way they drive). The birds spent their days in trees, searching for food and totally ignoring my feeders. It was clear they hadn’t come across many birdfeeders in whatever remote wilderness they had come from and didn’t know quite what to do with them. Eventually, though, they figured it out and now join in with the regulars. Eating from a feeder is way easier than dealing with sticky pinecones all day…although not nearly as fragrant.

What foods are Red-breasted Nuthatches attracted to? I have one feeder filled with black sunflower and another with shelled peanuts. The birds come to both feeders frequently, but the peanut feeder is their favorite. And for all you non-vegetarians (yeah, I’m sure there are a few of you left out there), offering suet is another option.

There’s no doubt that Red-breasted Nuthatches are breeding in increasing numbers, Terrance, but many of the birds we are seeing this fall are from north of the border. Sometimes these invading birds are only with us for a few weeks, while other years they remain all winter. We can enjoy their antics by watching our feeders or, if you go for a walk, listening for a “cacophony.” That’s a clue that a flock of Red-breasted Nuthatches is nearby…either that or it’s my wife is practicing big words again.

P.S. Another species from Canada has also invaded Cape Cod this fall. More on those birds next week. Try to contain your excitement until then.