You might quickly dismiss that small bird hitching down a tree trunk as a White-breasted Nuthatch. But take another look. This winter it is very possible that you are seeing its tiny cousin, the Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). Almost a full inch shorter than the White-breasted Nuthatch, the Red-breasted has, guess what, a reddish breast. A white line runs under the dark cap on its head, followed by a black line through the eye. And listen. This cute-as-a-button little sprite will announce itself as it moves about. Its ank-ank call is higher pitched and more nasal sounding than the white-breasted’s.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch lives and breeds in forest habitat, especially coniferous forests, in more northern or mountainous regions. Insects are the mainstay of its diet, but in winter it depends on the seeds from conifers to survive. In years when the conifer trees do not produce cones for winter food, the red-breasted nuthatch will migrate southward in search of sustenance. This seems to be one of those years.
Those of us who live in forested areas and offer suet or sunflower seeds at our bird feeders may be lucky enough to find a Red-breasted Nuthatch visiting our yards this winter. Like other nuthatches it will grab a morsel of food, fly to a nearby tree trunk and wedge the food into a crevice in the bark. This method is necessary since its legs are too short to hold onto a seed while it pounds it open with its sharp little bill. The word ‘nuthatch’ is an alteration of ‘nuthack’, referring to the bird’s habit of hacking open a wedged nut by hammering it with its bill.