In Minnesota, we have two species of Nuthatch.
The White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis
and the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis
The species name for the Red-breasted Nuthatch, Canadensis, refers to Canada, and in England where the Red-breasted Nuthatch can be a vagrant it is known as the Canadian Nuthatch.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch is smaller and stubbier (4.5”), than the White-breasted (5.75”). The Red-breasted has a long black eyestripe that contrasts with the white supercilium and a black cap. The White-breasted Nuthatch has white completely surrounding the eye with a black cap. The females of both species have a gray colored cap, but that can be hard to see in the field. The female Red-breasted can be differentiated from the male by their pale orange colored belly.
Their strong feet and legs give them the ability to move up and down the tree as well as side ways. They can be seen hanging upside down from branches while feeding.
Both birds like sunflower seeds and they will come in to the feeders. The Red-breasted also likes suet and both birds love peanuts! The name Nuthatch comes from their habit of wedging a seed into a crevice and pecking at it with their strong bills.
Up here in Crane Lake, we tend to have more of the Red-breasted variety. The Red-breasted prefers pines and the White-breasted mostly likes old growth open deciduous forest and mixed woods.
While we do have an abundance of breeding Red-breasted Nuthatches in northern Minnesota, Red-breasted Nuthatches that nest in Canada will migrate south in winter. We can experience quite an increase of this species around Crane Lake in the winter. Some years there are irruptions where the Red-breasted may be seen in southern Minnesota and points further south.
The White-breasted Nuthatch is a non-migratory bird that stays in their breeding territory year round. That is the habit, as well, of the other two species of Nuthatch, the Pygmy and the Brown-headed, that occur in other parts of North America.
Both birds nest in tree cavities by using old woodpecker holes or excavating their own. The Red-breasted has the curious habit of coating the entrance of their nesthole with sticky resin from nearby pine trees. The male applies it to the outside of the hole and the female applies it to the inside. This is probably useful in deterring predators. The White-breasted has been known to spread crushed blister beetles around the entrance to their nest holes – that may be helpful in discouraging squirrels.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a feisty little bird and you can hear them calling back and forth to each other all year. They will respond readily to “pishing” and will come close to investigate, sometimes within a few feet of your face. Their yank, yank, yank song resounds through-out the forest. Both Nuthatches are known to travel in mixed flocks, of Chickadees and other small birds, during the non-breeding season. The reason for this is generally believed to offer protection from predators.
Generally, the White-breasted Nuthatch is more of a loner, but sometimes you will see them in pairs. Both Nuthatches have the characteristic of going down the tree with their back ends up in the air. I’ve even seen them take quick naps in that position. It’s that upside down habit that has given them the affectionate name of “a**-up”!