Red-Breasted Nuthatch by Christine Haines,
courtesy of Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

It's true, I love this guy

(published 3-20-18)

Back in 2004, in what now seems like another life, I had a memorable experience on my way to work. Walking east along Wacker Drive I noticed what looked like a leaf floating toward the sidewalk. It landed softly, and a few steps later I was looking down at a male red-breasted nuthatch—the first and only one I’ve ever seen in downtown Chicago.

The tiny bird, a September migrant, had just collided with a building but was still alive. It seemed to be in good shape, just stunned. I placed it under some shrubs, hoping some quiet time would aid its recovery. Later in the day it was gone.

Red-breasted nuthatch is my favorite backyard visitor, so holding that bird in my hand was a thrill. It seemed impossibly small, and virtually weightless. Feathered perfection.

A red-breasted nuthatch photo hangs on the wall in our kitchen. When the feeders outside the window are vacant, I can still see my little friend.

Lots of my birding friends love this species, too. Roger and Diane from Wheaton exhibit their devotion with license plates bearing the letters “RBNH.” The green plates also feature a cardinal but it wouldn’t surprise me if the couple is working with the state on swapping that out.

The red-breasted nuthatch is a handsome little package that’s easy to ID. The male sports a dark cap, white eyebrow, black line through the eye, orangish underparts and blue-gray back. Markings on the female are similar but muted.

Shelled peanuts could attract this little
beauty to your backyard, too.
Stepping into my backyard, I often hear the bird’s nasal calls before I see it, if I see it at all. The persistent ank, ank, ank is small but distinctive, like the species itself. You can listen at, a terrific online resource provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Nuthatch behavior is unique as well. Their typical posture is upside down, with the head lower than their short tails. Extra-large feet help them creep along tree trunks, foraging for insects or “hatching” the seeds they wedged into a crevice earlier. Author and birding guide Alvaro Jaramillo calls nuthatches “the avian equivalent of Spiderman.”

Two species of are found in DuPage, red-breasted and white-breasted. Both are cavity nesters and may use man-made housing. White-breasted is a year-round resident and the most common of the two. It’s louder and larger than the red-breasted and favors mature trees, especially oaks. 

The red-breasted nuthatches we see here generally breed well north, in the upper Great Lakes and Canada. They visit this region mostly from October through April, with winter populations up and down from year to year.

That said, I’ve witnessed red-breasted nuthatches at my feeders in July, including juveniles. Their breeding range is known to be expanding south. 

Both nuthatch species enjoy black-oil sunflower seeds but shelled peanuts seem to be the key to attracting and holding red-breasteds. My wire mesh peanut feeder is a magnet for them along with chickadees and woodpeckers. Squirrels crave the nuts too but my trusty cone-shaped baffle keeps the critters grounded.
White-breasted is the larger and more common
of our two local nuthatch species.
Photo by Anubandh Gaitonde. 

Red-breasted nuthatch is my smallest feeder bird, and the most trusting. Once one landed on the peanut feeder just as I was about to hang it up. I froze and for a few seconds watched the bird 12 inches from face. With patience, nuthatches, like chickadees, will even take food from your hand.

Being tiny and weighing less than an ounce has a price. Red-breasted nuthatches must practice exceptional patience, waiting for just the right moment to fly in and grab a bite during times when the feeders are busy. It’s a pecking order thing, and fascinating to observe.  

Any story about Chicago-region nuthatches needs to include a third species, brown-headed nuthatch. In July 2001, birders had the improbable opportunity to see one here, at Illinois Beach State Park in Lake County. The bird was far from its usual home in the southeastern United States.

Brad Semel discovered the rare visitor, and it stayed in the park for nearly six months. It remains the only documented record of brown-headed nuthatch in Illinois.

North America is home to one other nuthatch species. Pygmy nuthatch, which closely resembles the brown-headed, is common in western states. None have been seen in Illinois, but a record exists from Iowa in 2000.

If red-breasted nuthatch is on your wish list, think about adding shelled peanuts to your bird feeding routine. Alternatively, an excellent place to look (and listen) is Morton Arboretum in Lisle. Check Hemlock Hill and other stands of cone-producing trees. The species is closely associated with conifers.

Copyright 2018 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.