Foul-weather friend

Photo credit: Laurie Dennis

By Tom Dennis

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

With winter soon upon us, many common summer avian residents have left for warmer climates and are being replaced with cold-weather birds looking for a nourishing environment.  The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a welcome visitor to area bird feeders and although we are on the southern edge of their year-round range, they have now arrived in large numbers. These are friendly birds and they can be taught to feed from your hand if you are patient and consistent.  Read on and we’ll see what makes these energetic fellows special.


The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a medium-sized nuthatch that’s smaller than the White-breasted Nuthatch; the only other nuthatch found in our area.  The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a dapper species with black head and eye stripe sharply offset by a long, white eyebrow.  The upper parts are blue-grey, above cinnamon brown underparts and a white throat.  A black general purpose bill and black legs complete the wardrobe.  The call is a soft “yank, yank” that is repeated often and as my wife Laurie says “they can be quite easily missed in the background noises” so listen carefully and enjoy the conversation.

The genus name Sitta is from the Greek word “sitte”, for the Eurasian Nuthatch.  The specific epithet canadensis is New Latin for “belonging to Canada”.  The common name nuthatch describes their feeding method of wedging nuts and seeds into bark and then hammering them open with its bill.  There are 28 species of nuthatches with representatives in North Africa, Eurasia, and North America where there are four species.  Nuthatches have a long, hind toe and short tail, enabling them to climb upside down and on the underside of branches.  The male and female work together to build the nest in tree cavities with the female doing the bulk of the work.  The male puts resin (pitch) on the outside of the hole and the female does the same inside.  This is thought to discourage predators or nest competitors and the activity temporarily leaves them with dull sticky plumage.

Red-breasted Nuthatches are prolific breeders, laying up to eight eggs in a single brood each year.  They have a world-wide population estimated at 18 million individuals and their range extends from Alaska to parts of all lower 48 states and throughout Canada.  They are short-distance migrators and in years with bountiful seed crops most stay north or in higher elevations, preferring coniferous (spruce and pine) forests.  Their lifespan averages six years.

Although they are well-known locally for eating seeds and nuts, the summer diet of the Red-breasted Nuthatch is mostly insects.  Your feeders should be stocked now with sunflower seeds, peanuts, or suet with sunflower seeds to attract these energetic birds.  If you want to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Pointe, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot on the first Monday of the month, October through May at 6:45 PM.  There is also a Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, be sure to friend us.

The Blue Water Audubon will meet again Thursday, November 1, 2018.


Tom Dennis is a resident of Fort Gratiot where he and Laurie Melms Dennis, his wife of 45 years, tend to their bird and butterfly friendly gardens. He is a speaker and free-lance writer, passionate birder, advanced master gardener, creation scientist, and naturalist, with degrees from Michigan State University in Zoology and Biology. Tom is an active member of Blue Water Audubon Society, Master Gardeners of St. Clair County, Port Huron Civic Theater, Ross Bible Church, Tapestry Garden Club, Blueways of St. Clair, and is a steward of the Blue Water Riverwalk with Friends of the St. Clair River.

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Disclaimer: Blue Water Healthy Living is an online magazine located in Port Huron, Michigan. Our purpose is to promote healthy living by showcasing the Blue Water Area, its people, issues and surroundings. This online magazine is devoted to providing healthy living related stories, local happenings, and commentary. Often inspiring and uplifting, our stories come from our heart and soul to promote the enjoyment of a more fulfilling Blue Water Area lifestyle. The material on this web site is provided for informational and amusement purposes only and is not to be confused with any medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the opinions and values of Blue Water Healthy Living.

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