Attracting Red-breasted Nuthatches to your backyard

Female Red-breasted Nuthatch by woodthrushshop

Last Updated on January 26, 2024 by Greg Gillson

The Red-breasted Nuthatch is my wife, Marlene’s, favorite feeder bird. They used to be regular visitors to our backyard when we lived in Oregon. Now that we live in the San Diego region, Red-breasted Nuthatches are rare birds. They are found in the mountain forests nearby sometimes, even more rarely in the lowlands in winter.

I no longer have these wonderful birds at my feeder. But if you live in the northern or conifer forested parts of the country you may. I’ll tell you how to attract these Red-breasted Nuthatches to your backyard. Then I provide links to additional information on where these birds live, how to identify them, how they nest, and what they eat.

Photo of a Red-breasted Nuthatch on a branch
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Red-breasted Nuthatch overview

Red-breasted Nuthatches are small songbirds. They are regular visitors to backyard feeders in the forested sections of the United States. You can attract them to your yard by providing appropriate food, trees, water, and nest boxes.


The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a small bird, barely 4-1/2 inches long from tip of bill to end of tail. It has a wingspan of 8-1/2 inches.

The general nuthatch shape is round with a large head and short neck. The tail is straight and very short. Legs are short. Feet are large and strong. Nuthatches have fairly long chisel-shaped bills.

Males and females are colored similarly, the males somewhat brighter with stronger contrast; the females paler.

Males have blue-gray upper parts and rusty-red under parts. They have a white face with a black cap that continues to the back. They also have a black line through they eye and wrapping back to the shoulder.

Both sexes give short nasal calls, enk or yank. The song is a longer series of slightly rising nasal tooting notes, eeen-eeen-eeen-eeen-eeen….

One behavior that all nuthatches share is crawling head-first down the trunk of trees as they forage.

Flight is weak and undulating, using the flap-bound flight style.

For more in-depth identification tips on plumage and voice, please visit my page What do Red-breasted Nuthatches look like?

           Male Red-breasted Nuthatch by                                            woodthrushshop

Range and habitat

Red-breasted Nuthatches are resident from Alaska across Canada. They are resident in the Midwest and Northeast United States. They are resident in the mountains of the West and along the West Coast to southern California to New Mexico.

The most northern breeding Red-breasted Nuthatches migrate south in winter. They reach the southernmost states. However, their winter migration is variable from year-to-year. In some years they irrupt southward in large numbers; in other years they are rarely noted south of their breeding grounds.

These birds live in many types of conifer forests. They are found in northern fir and spruce forests and pine forests in the West.

In those irregular winters when they move south in large numbers, they frequently visit conifer plantings in parks, towns, and backyards.

[For more specific information on where to find these birds, please visit my page Where do Red-breasted Nuthatches live?


In summer Red-breasted Nuthatches eat primarily insects and spiders that they glean from the bark of conifer trees.

In the autumn and winter they like to eat the seeds of pine cones and other conifers.

You can attract Red-breasted Nuthatches to your backyard feeder by offering shelled peanut pieces, black oil sunflower seeds, peanut butter, and suet.

These nuthatches prefer to eat from platform and hopper type feeders.

For more in-depth information on the diet of these nuthatches, including what to feed them in your backyard, please visit my page What do Red-breasted Nuthatches like to eat?

Nesting and reproduction

Red-breasted Nuthatches are monogamous, usually only nesting once per year.

In spring pairs of nuthatches (primarily the female) begin drilling a nest holes in a dead tree or branch. They prefer to excavate their own nest cavities rather than use old woodpecker holes. They may use nest boxes occasionally.

They build a nest of grasses and shredded bark inside the nest cavity.

Red-breasted Nuthatches usually lay 5-7 eggs. Eggs are cream-colored with brown spots.

It primarily is the female that incubate the eggs for about 12 days.

The young hatch naked and helpless. They remain in the nest for 18-21 days. Both parents feed the nestlings.

Form more details on the nesting and reproduction of these birds, please visit my page Where do Red-breasted Nuthatches like to nest?

Red-breasted Nuthatch by Cephas

Fun facts about Red-breasted Nuthatches

The scientific name is Sitta canadensis. Sitta is a Latinized form of the Greek name for nuthatches. The second part of the scientific name indicates belonging to Canada. So it is pretty straight forward, the Canada nuthatch. This is a pretty good description.
The word “nuthatch” is probably a corruption of the phrase “nut hack.” Nuthatches hack open nuts and seeds with their chisel-shaped bill.
Like all nuthatches they forage actively over branches and twig tips. They use short jerky hops to make their way head-first down the tree trunks! This foraging style is typical of nuthatches, and rather rare in other birds. 
When climbing on tree trunks nuthatches do not use their tail for support. They hop down the tree using their strong feet and sharp claws to hang on. Woodpeckers and creepers use their tails as a prop to help them hop up the tree along with their two legs.
The lifespan of Red-breasted Nuthatches is about 6 years.
Red-breasted Nuthatches smear pine pitch around the entrance hole to their nest. This may deter predators.
In winter these birds may use the old nest cavity as a night roost to keep warm.
Red-breasted Nuthatches often join mixed-species foraging flocks in winter. The core of these flocks is chickadees, but many other species join them, including kinglets, creepers, downy woodpeckers, some warblers, wrens, and other small birds.
A group of nuthatches is known as “a jar.”

Red-breasted Nuthatches cache food in fall. They hide it to retrieve and eat it in winter when food is scarce.Unwary, these little birds are almost indifferent to people and allow them to approach very close. Are you patient? They may fly up and take sunflower seeds from your hand!

Responds quickly to “pishing” and imitated pygmy owl calls.

Wrapping Up

The Red-breasted Nuthatch has a vast and interesting range that varies depending on the season and year. Here’s a breakdown:

Breeding Range:

  • Summer: Primarily in coniferous forests across Canada, Alaska, and the northern United States.
  • Habitat: Breeds in high-elevation forests, particularly spruce-fir and pine ecosystems.
  • Specific areas: Stretches from Newfoundland and Labrador west across Canada to British Columbia, south through the Great Lakes region, northern New England, and the higher elevations of the Appalachian Mountains to eastern Tennessee and North Carolina.

Non-breeding Range:

  • Winter: Can irrupt southwards in unpredictable patterns depending on food availability and weather conditions.
  • Habitat: Varies; may utilize coniferous forests, mixed woodlands, and even urban parks and gardens.
  • Specific areas: Southern Canada, northern and central United States, occasionally reaching northern Mexico.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the Red-breasted Nuthatch migratory?

The Red-breasted Nuthatch is considered a partially migratory species. Populations in the northernmost parts of their range typically migrate south in winter, while southern populations may be permanent residents.

Why do you see lots of nuthatches one winter and non the next?

The extent of their winter irruptions can vary greatly from year to year. Some winters they may be abundant in areas where they’re rarely seen, while other winters they may be scarce even in their usual wintering grounds.

Are Red-breasted Nuthatches found in the south at all?

Climate change may be impacting their range, with some evidence suggesting they are expanding their breeding range southward over time.

Comments 2
  1. I'm sure I have nuthatches however they are not as Rusty as the pictures that you have more of a yellow, soft yellow belly but has that narrow black beak… Alberta Canada..
    It's a great site that you have here.. thank you

  2. Hmm… female Red-breasted Nuthatches are paler than males, but always cinnamon.

    However, I can't think of what else they might be. So assume your ID is correct.

    Thank you for your compliments on the site.

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