This post discusses the habitat requirements and seasonal movements of these active little tree trunk climbers. In general, Red-breasted nuthatches live in conifer forests across Canada, the Northeastern United States, Appalachians, Alaska, and mountains of the West. In winter, the most northern populations move south. But the movements aren't consistent from year-to-year, depending upon the cone seed crop in northern forests.
This page is a supplement to my overview of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. The overview page leads to other more in-depth pages on identification, food and diet, nesting and reproduction, and back to this page on range and habitat.
Photo by Greg Gillson
Range and seasonal movements of Red-breasted Nuthatch
First I'll discuss the geographical and regional distribution, both in the summer breeding season and in winter. Then I'll talk about the specific habitats these birds like and perhaps what trees you can plant in your yard to attract these birds someday.
Where do Red-breasted Nuthatches live in summer?
The breeding range of Red-breasted Nuthatches is generally in the north from southeast Alaska eastward across Canada to Newfoundland. They occur southward to California and eastward to southeastern Arizona, Colorado, to South Dakota and Michigan. From southern Ontario they breed through the Appalachian mountains to western North Carolina. They also breed south to New York and Connecticut.
That's the general range. I'll try to get more specific now. To get this list I looked at eBird records in June only during the years 2015-2019. The more specific I get, the more chance I have of missing something. And remember, some of the places where the nuthatches breed less commonly they may also not breed every year.
Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Northeast United States
Breed in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, in scattered places across Pennsylvania, and northern New Jersey.
Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Southeast United States
Breed in extreme northern Georgia. Breeds in western North Carolina. Breeds in eastern Tennessee. Breeds in western Virginia. Breeds in eastern West Virginia.
Does not breed regularly in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Deleware, Maryland, or South Carolina.
Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Midwest United States
Breed in northern Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, northern and northeastern Minnesota, widely scattered locations in North Dakota, and western South Dakota.
Does not breed regularly in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, or Indiana.
Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Rocky Mountains of the United States
Breed in western and southcentral Montana, northwestern and southeastern Wyoming, western Colorado, northern and southeastern Idaho, eastern Utah, and near Lake Tahoe in Nevada.
Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Southwest United States
Breed in high mountains in northcentral Arizona to southeastern Arizona. Breeds in mountains of northcentral New Mexico and scattered mountains to the south and southwest parts of the state.
Does not breed regularly in Oklahoma or Texas.
Red-breasted Nuthatches in the Pacific region of the United States
Breed in western, northeastern, and southeastern Washington State. Breeds in western and northeastern Oregon. Breeds in northern California south in coastal mountains to San Francisco, south in interior mountains to Bakersfield, then less commonly in high mountains south to San Diego.
Breed from Kodiak and Denali to southeastern Alaska.
Breed in southern Yukon, British Columbia, southwestern Northwest Territories, central and southwestern Alberta, scattered locations in Saskatchewan, southern Manitoba, southern Ontario, southern Quebec, southeastern Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edwards Island, and St. Pierre and Miquelon.
Where do Red-breasted Nuthatches live in winter?
For the most part, Red-breasted Nuthatches live year-round in the same area in which they breed, as listed above.
However, the northernmost breeding Red-breasted Nuthatches in Canada migrate southward in winter. These include birds in northern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario.
Fall migrants may start showing up in non-breeding areas in late July and continue into November. Then they stay in place for the winter. In spring some nuthatches start moving north again in mid-March, while others are still moving north in early June.
What is an "irruption" of Red-breasted Nuthatches?
An irruption describes an unusual migratory movement of a large number of birds well south of normal wintering areas. It is usually thought to be caused by a failure of food resources. In the north, that usually means that pine cone seed crops from several tree species failed across a wide region.
Several species of northern birds eat cone seeds. When these fail most, or all, of these species irrupt. Other species that may move south in winter at the same time as Red-breasted Nuthatches include Pine Siskins, Red Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, and sometimes others.
The distance that Red-breasted Nuthatches migrate south in winter is variable from year-to-year. In some winters large numbers of nuthatches move far to the south of the normal breeding range. In other years they don't migrate as far south, if at all, beyond the typical breeding range.
How far south do some birds go? In the winter of 2018-2019 Red-breasted Nuthatches were found all across the United States, except for peninsular Florida and extreme southern Texas. In the winter of 2016-2017 nuthatches moved into the Midwest and Southeast, but were sparse in the Rocky Mountains and Southwest. In the winter of 2015-2016 there wasn't a noticeable movement of Red-breasted Nuthatches to the south of the normal range, even though birds left the northernmost parts of the Canada breeding range.
The ecology of Red-breasted Nuthatches
Red-breasted Nuthatch habitats in the northern conifer forest
Red-breasted Nuthatches breed in the northern conifer forest biome. This is an area south or below tundra. It is also called the boreal forest or taiga. Winters are long, cold, and snowy.
Across most of Canada the habitat consists of conifer trees composed primarily of black spruce, white spruce, and larch. Balsam fir is more common eastward. (https://dendro.cnre.vt.edu/Forsite/ncfbiome.htm)
Red spruce and Fraser fir are the conifers in the Appalachians.
In the Great Lakes region the predominant tree species where Red-breasted Nuthatches live include white spruce, red spruce, and jack pine.
Red-breasted Nuthatch habitats in the temperate conifer forest
Red-breasted Nuthatches also live in the temperate conifer forest biome. These have warm summers and wet winters. It also includes mountainous forests where snow can be heavy.
In the narrow coastal zone in the Gulf of Alaska and Southeast Alaska the habitat includes conifer trees such as Sitka spruce, western hemlock, shore pine, western red-cedar, and yellow cedar.
Inland in British Columbia and Alberta the forest is primarily lodgepole pine and jack pine, with some black fir and white fir. The coastal forests of British Columbia are dominated by western hemlock, western red-cedar, and silver fir. Inland in southern British Columbia the northern Cascades begin and feature mountain hemlock, silver fir, and yellow cedar.
In western Washington and Oregon the primary conifers where Red-breasted Nuthatches live are western hemlock, western red-cedar, and Douglas-fir. In the Cascades the lower and wetter western-side forests of Douglas-fir and western hemlock give way at higher elevations to mountain hemlock, noble fir, subalpine fir, grand fir, and silver fir, with Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine at the summit. The drier eastern slope of the Cascades has lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine.
Coastal northern California includes the redwood forests with Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and Sitka spruce. In the Sierra-Nevada mountains ponderosa pine, Jeffery pine, sugar pine, incense cedar and white fir are common conifers where Red-breasted Nuthatches can be found.
In the Northern Rocky Mountains the conifers present include western hemlock, western red-cedar, and subalpine fir at lower altitudes, with some Douglas-fir, lodgepole pine, western white pine, and larch. At higher elevations in the subalpine zone there are Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir.
Finally, Red-breasted Nuthatches live in Southern Rocky Mountain conifer forests. This forest is dominated by lodgepole pine. Engelmann spruce and Rocky Mountain Douglas-fir, and subalpine fir are also included.
Backyard trees to attract Red-breasted Nuthatches
As you can see, you can plant nearly any kind of fir, spruce, or pine in your yard to attract Red-breasted Nuthatches. Check with local nurseries to see what grows best in your area. Native trees will probably grow best. Pines are more open than the dense spruces and firs. Conifers tend to be slow growing, so don't expect to have a conifer forest sprout up right away!
By the time a conifer is 8-12 years old it should be old enough to be attractive to Red-breasted Nuthatches if there are any in your neighborhood. Start now!
What niche does the Red-breasted Nuthatch fill?
Red-breasted Nuthatches search for bark beetles and similar insects on the trunk and branches of conifers. They don't stay exclusively on the bark--sometimes working out on the needles, or even flycatching. But certainly the majority of their foraging time is spent diligently searching each crevice in the bark. In this foraging style they are competing directly with the Brown Creeper and various woodpeckers including, especially, the Hairy Woodpecker.
Uniquely, nuthatches are known for starting at the top of the tree and working their way down, head-first! This upside-down approach may help nuthatches find insects that are missed by the creeper and woodpeckers.