White-breasted Nuthatch

Sitta carolinensis


Year-round Resident
Has Nested in Park

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Sitta canadensis


Infrequently Seen

White-breasted Nuthatches are year-round residents who regularly breed at Monticello Park. They forage actively, and they can be seen on the trunks of trees. Nuthatches have a different perspective than most birds, spiraling down the trunks head first. This allows them to see insects missed by woodpeckers and other species who forage by moving up a tree trunk. Only a few Red-breasted Nuthatches have ever been seen at Monticello. They are more common in colder climates and generally come to the Washington metro area only when they do not have an adequate winter food supply where they normally live. During some winters, a lot of them will come south, but in other years, few or none will be seen in the area.

Where to See Them in the Park

White-breasted Nuthatches can be seen anywhere in the park. They are quite vocal and are easy to find. There is no good place in the park to look for Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Physical Descriptions


White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted - Photo by Ashley Bradford

White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted - Photo by William Young

White-breasted Nuthatches are round with a short tail. They have a white face, a black crown and nape, and a blue-gray back. The undertail is rufous. They are not shy, and they sometimes forage on a trunk very close to people. The bill is narrow, which allows them to more effectively probe for insects. They have strong legs and feet for clinging to trees. The sexes look similar.

White-breasted Nuthatch with Fecal Sac
White-breasted with fecal sac - Photo by William Young

Nuthatches are cavity nesters, and White-breasted Nuthatches at Monticello have nested in tree cavities in the dog exercise area and other places. They have large broods, ranging from 5 to 10. Incubation lasts about 12 days and is done only by the female. During this time, the male brings food to her. When the young hatch, both the male and female bring them food and remove fecal sacs. The young remain in the nest for two weeks. After they leave the nest, the parents may give them food for another two weeks. After the young can fend for themselves, they often stay in the same family group with their parents, sometimes into the autumn.

White-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted - Photo by Ashley Bradford

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted - Photo by William Young

Red-breasted Nuthatches are much smaller than the White-breasted. They have a similar blue-gray back, but they have reddish underparts and a prominent black line through the eye. The bill is small and narrow.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted - Photo by Ashley Bradford

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted - Photo by Ashley Bradford

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Red-breasted - Photo by Ashley Bradford

White-breasted Nuthatch preening
White-breasted Nuthatch preening - Photo by Ashley Bradford

Vocalizations

The song of the White-breasted Nuthatch is a series of burry nasal sounds — ank-ank-ank. The song of the smaller Red-breasted Nuthatch sounds like a less substantial ank-ank-ank — as if it is being made by a tin trumpet.

Hear the vocalizations of the White-breasted Nuthatch.
Hear the vocalizations of the Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Notes

The White-breasted Nuthatch might eventually be split into three species. There are currently three races who have slightly different plumage and vocalizations. The birds seen at Monticello are part of the eastern race. The other two races are found in the West and the Interior West of North America.

Origin of Names

Common Names: White-breasted from the plumage. Red-breasted from the plumage. Nuthatch means "nut hacker".
Genus Name: Sitta means "nuthatch".
Species Names: Carolinensis means "of Carolina", which was a loose term for the South. Canadensis means "of Canada", to reflect the more northerly range.

White-breasted Nuthatch video footage
Red-breasted Nuthatch video footage

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