Red-breasted

I practically walked into this Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) a week ago on Nantucket. We were eye-to-eye for a moment, until it worked its way further into some kind of tiny-leaved elm. The island was flush with these nuthatches while I was there. I even saw a few White-breasted Nuthatches on the island, which I never have before. Here in NYC, the White-breasted are more common, but if you look, and listen, you should find some Red-breasted. I was struck most of all by how small this bird was. I’ve seen these many times before, from a distance of yards, often through binoculars, but rarely from just a foot or so, as I did this one initially. Size is tricky that way. The bird doesn’t look that small from a distance, but up close it is tiny. For comparison’s sake: a House Sparrow is 6.25″ in length, the Red-breasted 4.5″ in length.
“Red” is a fairly abused word in the common names of birds. This is more of a burnt orange. Females are paler, so this may be a female. This species is generally found in pine woods; this looks like a irruption year for these birds, meaning more will be coming down from boreal Canada than usual. Nuthatches stick close to trees and will often be seen hanging upside down from branches and pinecones. They are using their relatively long bills to probe under bark, into crevices, cones, etc. for invertebrates and seeds. They get their common name “nuthatch” because they use their bills to whack seeds open for the meaty nut. “Hatch” here is a form of “hack”; some wits say the birds “hatch” out the nuts in a Caesarian way.
Hamlet, mopey prince of Denmark, says “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” This seems to mean he finally accepts his fate after all the preceding tsuris, even if he doesn’t know what that fate is yet (spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty). Just before this, he says “we defy augury” — which was originally a form divination via reading the flight of birds.

Hamlet paraphrases Matthew, speaking King James’s English, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father,” which suggest both the omnipotence and the one-ness of all. I don’t find the sky god concept a necessary fiction, but the connection between us and even the littlest birds is undoubted.

2 Responses to “Red-breasted”


  1. 1 Gillian October 18, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    Those Red-breasted Nuthatches are pretty cute, aren’t they? We have them here in Ottawa, and they are even bolder than the chickadees when it comes to taking food (especially peanuts and black oil sunflower seeds!) from your hand!

    Yes, it is going to be an irruption year for this species, as well as for many of the “winter finches” due to a widespread tree seed crop failure in the Northeastern boreal forest. Keep an eye for those redpolls and Pine Grosbeaks this winter!

  2. 2 Fork in My Eye October 19, 2012 at 8:21 am

    I was going to ask what might cause an irruption year but Gillian answered that. I love that I almost always learn something when I visit your blog.


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