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, range and habitat, nesting and reproduction, and back to this page on foods and diet.
Red-breasted Nuthatch head-first down the tree!
Photo by Greg Gillson
Diet and natural foods
Red-breasted Nuthatches primarily eat insects in summer. Beetles, wasps, crane flies, moths, caterpillars, and insect eggs are included in their diet. They also eat spiders, ants, weevils, and earwigs.
The young are fed mostly on insects and spiders.
The larvae of the spruce budworm eat the needles and buds of conifers. This has caused much damage to northern and western forests during outbreaks. Red-breasted Nuthatches are one of several birds that eat these larvae and probably the little brown adult moths, too. Several references note that birds and insect predators act as natural controls of the spruce budworm, but don't have much effect during massive outbreaks.
In winter, Red-breasted Nuthatches like to eat the seeds found in the cones of pine, spruce, fir and other conifers. But they can still find some arthropods such as bark beetles in the bark of trees. Other native nuts that they eat include acorns and beechnuts.
Conifer trees sometimes fail to produce a good cone crop. When there is a cone crop failure birds that feed on them move southward in large numbers. This is called an irruption (not to be confused with an eruption!). Frequently, several species of winter cone seed eaters irrupt together. Such birds can include Pine Siskins, Red Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatches and others. In normal years these birds winter in the same region where they breed. But in irruption years, they may be found hundreds of miles south of their normal summer range.
Red-breasted Nuthatches at the backyard feeder
Foods to attract Red-breasted Nuthatches
If there are conifers in your neighborhood, especially in your own backyard, you may have Red-breasted Nuthatches visit your feeder, especially in winter.
The favorite seed at your feeder to attract nuthatches is going to be black oil sunflower seeds. These nuthatches are going to fly up and take them away, one at a time, to open and eat, or to cache away for later. I'll tell you more about this when we discuss feeding behavior below.
In winter, Red-breasted Nuthatches are especially attracted to suet. This can be plain or with peanuts included within. With their strong feet and long toes they can hang on well to suet cages.
Speaking of peanuts, these little birds love peanuts! Offer them shelled, either whole or broken smaller. There are some bird foods that include tree nuts and peanuts that they'll love.
Nuthatches will also enjoy mealworms, especially in a mix with nuts and sunflower chips. (Amazon link to seed bell)
Red-breasted Nuthatches will love peanut butter, too. You can spread it on the bark of a tree or mix it with seed or corn meal and put it in pre-drilled holes in special feeders (Amazon link to peanut butter feeder) or DIY pine cone feeder.
What is the best feeder for Red-breasted Nuthatches?
Except for suet feeders, Red-breasted Nuthatches do not spend long on the feeder. They grab food and fly off. So there is no special "nuthatch feeder." Rather, nuthatches will visit any feeder offering black oil sunflower seeds and peanuts.
A metal mesh finch feeder offering black oil sunflower seeds will be easier for them to hang onto than one of the plastic-walled tube feeders. Tube feeders with trays on the bottom will be fine for them.
Red-breasted Nuthatches will visit a small hopper style bird feeder. These have trays to sit in.
Of course, these nuthatches will grab sunflower seeds from a larger platform feeder, too. It's just that the larger feeder is likely to have larger (and more) birds. Nuthatches are quite small and may be kept away by too many larger and perhaps more aggressive birds. However, Red-breasted Nuthatches have been known to hold their own against other small birds.
There are some peanut feeders that nuthatches would use. But these seem like they'd attract more squirrels and jays than smaller birds.
Feeding and foraging behavior
Red-breasted Nuthatches are active and jerky as they crawl up and down a tree. They aren't restricted to the trunk, however. They spend equally as much time investigating the bark on the branches for beetles. In fact, they may be seen acrobatically climbing on the outer needle clusters, as well. Occasionally, these birds may fly out to catch flying insects, too.
They forage singly or in pairs, unless you come across a family group with recent fledglings in summer.
In winter they join in a flock with other birds as they move through the forest, from tree-to-tree. It is rare, however, to see more than a couple of nuthatches in these foraging mixed flocks that have a core group of chickadees, and lesser numbers of kinglets, wrens, nuthatches, warblers, vireos, creepers, and downy woodpeckers.
These birds pry open the pine (or spruce or fir) cones with their bill in order to reach the seeds within.
When eating sunflower seeds at your feeder Red-breasted Nuthatches are very quick. They alight briefly, grab a sunflower seed, and immediately fly off to a tree branch to eat it.
Nuthatches cannot chew to open seeds as do sparrows, so the nuthatches take a seed and wedges it in a crevice in the bark. Then they use their bill to pound the seed or nut open to get the kernel inside. In fact, you might follow tapping in the woods thinking you will find a woodpecker, and have it turn out to be a nuthatch, instead.
Red-breasted Nuthatches sometimes cache food for winter. They store food to eat later. Rather than storing many seeds in one cache, these birds store individual seeds or nuts lodged into the bark of trees. They even cache away beetles! Usually, though, they cache pine seeds. There are reports of these nuthatches caching food on the ground and covering it.
Red-breasted Nuthatches come to water to drink. As with most birds they are attracted to the sound of dripping water. They may be attracted to fountains and drippers and other artificial water sources, more so than a non-circulating bird bath.