About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
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Sunday, November 8, 2009

Red-breasted or red-bellied? Who establishes bird names in the US?

I just saw a nuthatch and I have trouble remembering if it’s red-bellied or red breasted. Now that I think about it, maybe it’s a rose-breasted nuthatch. Can you clarify the name for me?

The American Ornithological Union (AOU) has long been the accepted authority for English bird names and scientific nomenclature. Founded in 1883, the AOU is the oldest organization in the New World devoted to the scientific study of birds. They establish an order and consistency across the continent which allows birders in different states to talk about a specific bird that may have several local names.

This is a very good thing to lessen confusion in bird discussions, but the official names chosen often seem a mystery to the average backyard birder. (Especially my mom who still insists the Red-bellied Woodpecker is misnamed.) However these decisions were probably made in the 1800’s and aren’t likely to be changed now. That doesn’t mean you still can’t call birds by any nickname you want when you talk about birds with friends or family.

So what is the official name of the species of bird you spotted?

Red-breasted Nuthatch Sitta canadensis
Order: PASSERIFORMES Family: Nuthatches (Sittidae)

Adult Red-breasted Nuthatches have gray backs with rust-colored breasts. They have black caps and white stripes above the eyes. Females are less colorful, with a more washed-out rust color on the belly. Some additional nicknames used for the Nuthatch you observed include Canada Nuthatch, Devil-down-head, and Topsy-turvy bird.

As they move along the trunks and branches of trees, Red-breasted Nuthatches glean bugs such as beetles, pine woodborers, and spiders. In winter, they like the seeds of fir, pine, and spruce trees. They are also common visitors at peanut, sunflower, mealworms, and suet feeders.

Unlike other nuthatches, Red-breasted Nuthatches do not always remain on their territories year round. We usually only see them in the winter in mid-Michigan but some may stay up north throughout the winter, depending on the state of the cone crop.

1 comment:

Joy K. said...

I am *SO* in agreement with your mom re: the Red-Bellied Woodpecker.