RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH. Sitta canadensis Linnaeus
size of Junco; tail about half length of body. Top and sides of head,
black in male, slaty in female; a white stripe over eye in both sexes;
back slate gray; under surface of body reddish brown. (See pl.
10g). "Hitches" about in all directions on bark of trees.
Voice: A piping nasal na, uttered singly or in measured
summer in Canadian Zone (less plentiful in Transition and Hudsonian
zones) on west flank of Sierra Nevada. Recorded in that season from
Smith Creek (at 3000 feet altitude east of Coulterville), and from near
Chinquapin, eastward to Tuolumne Meadows. Found on east slope of
mountains (Walker Lake) in September. In Yosemite Valley practically
throughout the year. Lives on trunks and branches of conifers, usually
in the upper halves of the trees. Solitary.
Often when the traveler is following a trail through
a forest there comes to his ear from the lofty tree tops the quaint
nasal call of the Red-breasted Nuthatch, sounding like the blast of an
elfin horn. With careful search he may locate a small form moving about
the trunk and branches at the tiptop of a tree. If luck favors and the
observer is patient the bird may eventually come low enough so that the
black on its head, the white stripe over the eye, the bluish gray back,
the reddish brown under surface, and the very short, squared tail will
all be seen and the identification rendered certain.
The center of abundance of the Red-breasted Nuthatch
lies within the Canadian Zone, but some of the birds are to be found in
the zone above and in that below. The seasonal status of the species is
not fully known. In Yosemite Valley, which is in the Transition Zone, it
is present continually at least from April to the last of December, and
it seems likely that a few of the birds stay there throughout the whole
winter. On December 30, 1914, four Red-breasted Nuthatches were heard
near Gentrys (6000 feet), which suggests that some of the birds may
remain even higher in the mountains throughout the year. The species is
known to visit the foothills and valleys in other parts of California
during some winters, but we did not see it, winter or summer, at any
station below the Transition Zone, in the Yosemite section.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch is of about the size of the
Pigmy Nuthatch and but half the bulk of the Slender-billed. It has a
conspicuous stripe over the eye which is the best single mark by which
it may be recognized. (See pl. 10g). The Red-breasted Nuthatch is
a solitary bird and so is not likely to be confounded with the Pigmy
Nuthatch which is emphatically of flocking habit.
The call note of the Red-breasted Nuthatch is a nasal
na or weh, reminding some people of the tooting of a child's
penny trumpet. Sometimes the note is given singly or, if repeated, with
very long intervals between calls, while on other occasions five to nine
calls are given close together with measured timing. When the birds are
disturbed or excited the na-na-na, etc., comes with a more rapid
and continued production, even for several minutes at a time. The nature
of the call is such that it carries for long distances; the hearer is
frequently deceived into believing that the bird is close by. This one
call seems to be the only vocal achievement of which this nuthatch is
Even among the three species of nuthatches, which as
a group are bark dwellers, there seems to be mutual agreement with
respect to forage range, by which each is allotted a separate precinct.
The Slender-bill keeps to the smaller trees or around the bases of the
larger ones, the Pigmy forages out toward the ends of the branches and
amid the needle tufts, while the Red-breasted, although sometimes coming
close to the ground, spends most of its time up near the tops of the
loftiest trees where it inspects the main shaft and larger branches.
Were it not for the bird's far-carrying note, the last-named species
would often be passed unnoticed even by the careful observer. Although a
nuthatch may be calling constantly the observer often has great
difficulty in discerning the 4-inch bird at the top of a tree a hundred
feet or more in height.
At Hazel Green on May 14, 1919, a pair of these
nuthatches was seen foraging close together and within a few feet of the
ground. One of the birds (the male?) kept its tail slightly spread so
that the white band showed at each side. Presumably this was a courting
display somewhat of the nature to be noticed among fox sparrows, juncos,
and other birds at this season, and it is likely that nesting commenced
The Red-breasted Nuthatch probably nests as a rule
well up in the trees at about the level at which the birds spend most of
their time. On June 14, 1915, near Chinquapin, the mobbing of two
Blue-fronted Jays by a pair of nuthatches led to the discovery of the
latter's nest site. After the jays had quit the vicinity one of the
nuthatches was seen to enter a little round hole in the trunk of a
slender and very brittle, dead silver fir. Since the hole was about
fifty feet above the ground, the tenants were perfectly safe there from
any human intrusion.
Of the nuthatches collected during June, 1915, males
predominated, a fact which would suggest that at this season the females
were engaged in incubation or in caring for the young. On August 3,
1920, at Smith Creek, 6 miles east of Coulterville, a juvenal bird which
was molting into the first winter plumage was taken. The birds collected
in August, 1915, at Merced Lake and on Mount Clark (at 8800 feet) were
all immatures of the current season; probably the adults were molting
and so, as is often the case with birds at that season, were keeping
themselves in seclusion.
Once a Red-breasted Nuthatch fell victim to a mouse
trap, baited with rolled oats, which had been set beside a log in the
forest. Whether the bird had sought the material as food (for some
nuthatches do take nuts and seeds) or whether it was led to investigate
the trap out of curiosity was not evident. All nuthatches have a more or
less well marked trait of curiosity, as have their relatives, the tits
The flight of the Red-breasted Nuthatch is slow and
hesitating, the wings beating a few rapid strokes and then being held
closed for a short interval. Perhaps this peculiarity of flight is due
partly to the extreme shortness of the tail (fig. 58b). The
shortness of the tail is a striking feature of the silhouette of the
bird in flight.
But little seems to be known concerning the food
habits of this species. Its regular patrol of the bark of trunks and
branches of trees probably means that insects and their eggs and larvae
contribute extensively to the diet of the bird. A freshly captured bird
gives off a curious odor quite distinctive of the species, possibly due
to its regularly feeding upon some particular sort of insect.
At Aspen Valley one day in October one of these
nuthatches was watched as it came down to drink. The bird descended from
the trees to the vertical surface of a rock about three feet above the
water and then by short flights moved to a twig two inches above a
little pool. There it leaned down and drank ten or twelve sips at
intervals of three or four seconds. Its bill was in the water less than
a second for each drink; the rest of the time the bird spent in looking
cautiously about. At this same locality a Red-breasted Nuthatch came
several times to a white fir near our camp and drank some of the sap
which was oozing from a gash in the bark near the base of the tree.