Red-breasted Nuthatch, visitor from the north

Nuthatches come to my bird feeder in summer, winter, spring and fall. White-breasted nuthatches. They are non-migrants, residents. They live in the area like chickadees and downy woodpeckers, blue jays and cardinals, house sparrows, house finches and goldfinches. But a red-breasted nuthatch is an uncommon, even a rare winter visitor, a bird from the north, for me, probably a bird from northern Michigan or southern Canada.

Nuthatches are those topsy-turvy birds that perch crossways on a tree trunk, head often lower than their tail. Hence the name, nut or nutty hatch? Not at all. The name was originally ‘nuthack’ and came from the birds sticking a large seed or small nut in the bark of a tree and pecking it, hacking away at it. Somehow, sometime, hack became hatch.

White-breasted nuthatches are common, though not abundant. They’re birds of deciduous woods and woodlands of all but the most southern areas of the United States and of Alaska and Hawaii. They’re common feeder birds too, attracted to both seed and suet feeders where there are trees nearby.

A white-breasted nuthatch is slightly smaller, shorter, than a house sparrow, half an inch or so. Its bill is slender and pointed, needle-like, not at all like the bill of a sparrow. It’s black on the top of its head and back of its neck, bluish gray on the back with black and white in its wings and tail. The sides of its face, its throat, breast and belly are white.

A red-breasted nuthatch is smaller than a white-breasted, an inch shorter. It, too, has a black cap and is blue-gray on the back with black in its wings and tail. Its breast and belly are rusty red and it has a black line through each eye, a white line above each eye. Since a nuthatch is seen more often than not stuck on the bark of a tree trunk, its head and back visible, its breast and belly not, it’s the black line through the eye that frequently first identifies it.

There are two other nuthatches in North America. The brown-headed is a bird of the southeast, from the Atlantic Coast and Florida west into eastern Texas and southeastern Oklahoma. It’s the size of a red-breasted, the color of a white-breasted except it has, as its name states, a brown cap. Then there’s the pygmy nuthatch, a bird of the west, west of the plains, with scattered distribution from southern Canada south into Mexico.

There are nuthatches in Europe too. One, named simply nuthatch in English, occurs across all but the most northern part of Europe and the northern half of England. It’s the size of the North American white-breasted nuthatch, has a reddish breast and a black line through each eye but no white above its eyes.  There’s the rock nuthatch, a bird of southeast Europe, a faded edition of the nuthatch, that lives among rocks, not trees.  And there’s the Corsican nuthatch, a bird of Corsica that looks like our red-breasted nuthatch.

A red-breasted nuthatch flew to the feeder outside my window one afternoon recently, snatched a seed, then flew to the nearest big tree and landed on the bark of the tree trunk. For the rest of the afternoon it flitted back and forth between feeder and tree. Then it was gone and I haven’t seen it since.

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