Native Birds of Wisconsin: The Red-Breasted Nuthatch
by Helen Zhang, age 13, Original Artwork by Annie Shao, age 17
The red-breasted nuthatch, also known as an “upside-down bird,” is one of many birds native to Wisconsin. With its distinct black cap and pale rust-brown underparts, this attractive bird is commonly found on the branches, rather than on the trunks, of trees.
The male nuthatch has blue-gray upperparts, a recognizable rust-brown underpart, and a white throat. Female nuthatches are duller in color, with paler underparts. Similar to other nuthatches, this bird has short legs, a flat body, and a big head. The head feathers look like a black cap with a white stripe at the bottom. Under this white strip, there is a black eyestripe. An average red-breasted nuthatch is about 11 centimeters long and only weighs 11 grams.
Like the other nuthatch species, this bird can descend headfirst downwards on tree trunks and branches. This is how it can search the bark for tiny organisms that are often overlooked by other birds. The red-breasted nuthatch has a greatly enlarged hind toe and a short tail, which help it climb up and down trees, hence the name “upside-down bird.”
The red-breasted nuthatch is found in Wisconsin and in Canada. It also lives in many other parts of the continental United States. Their habitat ranges from as far north as Alaska, and as far south as Arizona. These birds are often spotted in mixed-woods and coniferous regions. They prefer spruce-fir forests.
A female red-breasted nuthatch will typically lay four to seven white to light pink eggs, marked with red-brown colors. These eggs are kept in a nest of twigs and grass, lined with soft material and stored in a tree cavity. Both parents build the nest, but the female does most of the work. The female keeps the eggs warm for about 12 days before they hatch. A unique characteristic of this nuthatch is that they apply sticky conifer resin, a substance produced by trees, to the entrance of the nest. This helps keep out predators or competitors.
Common foods of the red-breasted nuthatch are insects, spiders, and egg masses. Sunflower seeds and nut pieces are also favorites of the nuthatch. The name “nuthatch” comes from the bird’s habit of wedging nuts in bark crevices and hammering them open with its bill. These charming little birds are also very useful in keeping insect pests under control and are welcomed at bird feeding stations.
The red-breasted nuthatch is a fairly common bird in Wisconsin. Its habit of mouse-like creeping on tree limbs makes it easy to overlook. The nuthatch’s high-pitched “yank-yank” call is often heard long before the bird is seen. Be sure to watch for this unique bird the next time you’re out hiking!