Unexpected Visitors

The chickadee nestbox cam has been up for a little more than 2 weeks and, except for a brief stop-in on that first day, no chickadees have checked out the box. But that may be because a Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) seems to have laid a claim to it instead and, despite their size (about 4.5 inches), Red-breasted Nuthatches are fiercely territorial.

Female Red-breasted Nuthatch on bird feeder. Note the washed-out look to her head stripes. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Red-breasted Nuthatches, so-named because of their habit of jamming seeds and nuts into crevices and hammering them open with their long, slightly upturned bills, are active  little birds with big personalities. Both sexes have rusty underparts, blue-grey upper parts, a short tail, and black and white stripes on the head, though females are a little duller in color than the males. Their calls are often said to sound like the toots of little tin horns.

Most Red-breasted Nuthatches in Colorado are drawn to higher elevations where there are more conifers, but this little guy appears enamored with my nestbox with its nearby supply of bird seed and suet. Even after emptying the wood shavings out of the box, he returns to it regularly many times a day calling for his mate and even drumming intermittently like a woodpecker. So far I haven’t seen her enter the box, though occasionally she has clung to the entrance hole and chittered quietly to him.


Much of the literature I’ve read says Red-breasted Nuthatches rarely use nestboxes. This may be because they’re able to excavate their own cavities in decaying wood. Without many dead trees in my neck of the woods, however, the odds of this pair choosing my nestbox may be greater. That is, of course, if the female decides she likes the neighborhood; female Red-breasted Nuthatches, like with most other songbirds, get final say on the nesting location.

If they do decide to nest, I can expect between 4 and 7 (6 on average) eggs to be laid in a nest lined with grass and bark and incubated exclusively by the female. A big hint that the birds are nesting will be if they start spreading conifer resin around the entrance hole of the box, which is thought to deter predators.



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