January–February 2022

Minnesota Profile

White-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) and Red-Breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)

Minnesota’s two nuthatches are among the most identifiable birds in the state.

Bob Dunlap (DNR zoologist)

Appearance. Minnesota’s two nuthatches are among the most identifiable birds in the state. Both species have dark blue-gray upper sides blending into black crowns. The white-breasted nuthatch has a white face and white in the breast that tapers to a grayish belly and chestnut undertail. The red-breasted nuthatch has a bold face pattern with a white supercilium or “eyebrow” above a thick black eye line bordered underneath by more white. The rest of its underparts from its throat to its undertail are peachy-orange. Both nuthatches have short tails and sharp, wedge-tipped bills. The red-breasted nuthatch is among our smallest songbirds at just over 4 inches in length, whereas the white-breasted nuthatch is closer to 5½ inches.

Behavior. In addition to their plumages, these two birds are just as readily recognized by the way they creep down tree trunks headfirst (although they can also creep up as well as horizontally along branches). This is likely an example of niche specialization; by creeping down a tree they’re able to find invertebrates undiscovered by birds such as woodpeckers that are creeping up. Using their bills, they chip, probe, and pry under the bark to reach their prey. After they’ve grabbed a morsel, they often hammer it into the bark to rip it apart.
Distribution. White-breasted nuthatches are found year-round in wooded areas throughout Minnesota, although they favor deciduous trees over conifers and are therefore a bit less common in the northeast. Red-breasted nuthatches favor conifers and are commonly found in coniferous forests mostly in the northern half of Minnesota. Red-breasted nuthatches are also considered a partial migrant, meaning that some birds that we see in Minnesota in fall and winter come from farther north whereas others stay here year-round. In some years we find large numbers of red-breasted nuthatches in the southern half of Minnesota—probably a sign of irruptions due to conifer seed scarcity on their breeding grounds.
Observing Nuthatches. Both nuthatches readily visit bird feeders, including feeders that offer both sunflower seeds and suet. Especially in winter, expect to see nuthatches at feeders as their diets switch from mostly invertebrates to seeds. Nuthatches, like many other birds that spend their winters in cold climates, often cache their food, increasing their chances of winter survival. As they go about their business foraging, be sure to listen for their short, nasal calls, with red-breasted sounding distinctly higher in pitch than white-breasted.