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Mike Jacobs Always in Season: ‘Delightful’ red-breasted nuthatches show up in Grand Forks

Some part of my life has been spent in search of red-breasted nuthatches, especially on winter bird counts. Most winters, I was successful in finding red-breasted nuthatches. They are reliable winter visitors here.

Illustration/Mike Jacobs
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    Mike Jacobs.
    Tom Stromme

    GRAND FORKS – The backyard of our house in “the hills” section of Grand Forks is hardly a bird haven, and I know the reason why. It’s windblown and almost completely lacking in cover. This is in sharp contrast to our place west of Gilby, N.D., where I watched birds for two dozen winters.

    Suezette and I owned about 50 acres there, and most of it was overgrown. Though it remained windswept, at least there was cover. That’s what birds want in the winter. We often had hordes of birds of great variety. Birds of 20 or more species regularly visited on a given winter day.

    So, I was delighted when a species that we’d never seen at Magpie Ridge showed up outside our living room window. Actually, it was the cat that noticed first, and Suezette called it to my attention when she realized the cat was seeing a bird just beyond the window pane.

    It was a red-breasted nuthatch.

    White-breasted nuthatches we had regularly, though, and this is the nuthatch I expect to see.


    Some part of my life has been spent in search of red-breasted nuthatches, especially on winter bird counts. Most winters, I was successful in finding red-breasted nuthatches. They are reliable winter visitors here.

    I’ve had three reports of snowy owls this winter: two in North Dakota and one in Minnesota.

    The species has also been reported as nesting in North Dakota and more frequently in Minnesota, but I’ve never seen the bird in nesting season. It is much more common farther north. “The Birds of Manitoba,” published by the provincial Naturalists’ Society, calls it “a fairly common breeder” in “the southern half of the boreal forest,” essentially the part of the province lying north of Manitoba’s “great lakes” – Winnipeg and Manitoba – “and a migrant and winter visitor in varying numbers” in the south. A website called eBird, maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, shows widespread reports of red-breasted nuthatches across our region, increasing eastward.

    Both of these sources offer some asides about red-breasted nuthatches. Cornell calls it “cute and energetic.” The Manitoba naturalists note that it is “a favorite of many birders” and “a delightful species.”

    Therein lies my special interest in red-breasted nuthatches, and my pleasure in seeing one in the backyard.

    There haven’t been many others, I regret to say, although black-capped chickadees show up regularly, and a handful of dark-eyed juncos have made an appearance. Of course, there are the crows. We’ve had Cooper’s hawks in the backyard, though not recently, and downy woodpeckers show up almost daily.

    Thus, my ruminations about red-breasted nuthatches. Although the species showed up at a birdfeeder, it spends more time in the woods, There’s some consensus that these nuthatches prefer stands of evergreens, and I often found them in conifer plantings within Icelandic State Park between Cavalier and Walhalla, N.D., when I conducted the annual Christmas Bird Count there.

    This is by no means a unanimous view, however. The species seems to be opportunistic nesters. A number of sources noted that they smear sap from conifers – you might know it as “pine tar” – at the entrance to their nests, which they excavate themselves.

    Of course, white-breased nuthatches occur here, too, and year around. The species are similar. A glance at either quickly confirms that it is a nuthatch. They are easily told apart, however. The red-breasted is smaller and seems heavier in the breast and shorter in the tail, giving the species a front-loaded appearance. The breast is indeed reddish in color, fading farther forward. This red breast is a definitive field mark. Take some care, though; white-breasted nuthatches sometimes soil themselves, dirtying their breast. This never extends so broadly across the belly and breast as it does in the red-breasted species.


    Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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