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Pygmy Nuthatch

Sitta pygmaea ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: SITTIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Small even by nuthatch standards, Pygmy Nuthatches are tiny bundles of hyperactive energy that climb up and down ponderosa pines giving rubber-ducky calls to their flockmates. Their buffy-white underparts set off a crisp brown head, slate-gray back, and sharp, straight bill. Pygmy Nuthatches breed in large extended-family groups, which is one reason why you’ll often see a half-dozen at a time. Look for them in open forests of older ponderosa pines across the West.

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Keys to identification Help

Nuthatches
Nuthatches
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Pygmy Nuthatches are tiny songbirds with short, square tails, large, rounded heads, and straight, sharp bills. The legs are short and the wings are short and broad.

  • Color Pattern

    Pygmy Nuthatches have slate gray wings and back, with a rich brown cap that ends in a sharp line through the eye. The underparts are whitish to pale buff.

  • Behavior

    These energetic songbirds forage by climbing pine trunks and branches to search under bark and in needle clusters for insects and seeds. They move constantly and give short, squeaky calls, often mixing with chickadees, kinglets, and other songbirds. Pygmy Nuthatches are highly social: they breed cooperatively and also pile in to cavities in groups to roost communally on cold winter nights.

  • Habitat

    Pygmy Nuthatches live in pine forests in western North America; they especially favor mature ponderosa pine forests. They are typically found at lower and middle elevations where ponderosa pine grows, but can sometimes occur up to 10,000 feet.

Range Map Help

Pygmy Nuthatch Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Pygmy Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Very small, stocky nuthatch
    • Pale blue-gray back and wings
    • Chestnut brown cap
    • Pale underparts with buffy wash on breast
    • © Lois Manowitz, Mt. Lemmon, Tucson, Arizona, August 2010
  • Adult

    Pygmy Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Very small and stocky
    • Like other nuthatches, often hangs upside down while foraging
    • Dark brown cap contrasts with pale throat
    • Blue/gray back and wings
    • © Bob Gunderson, Outer Richmond, San Francisco, California, October 2011
  • Adult

    Pygmy Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Very small and compact
    • Often seen using stout, wedge-shaped bill to pry open pine cones
    • Buffy wash on breast and belly
    • Dark brown cap contrasts with pale throat
    • © Bob Gunderson, San Francisco, California, September 2011
  • Adult

    Pygmy Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Tiny, compact nuthatch
    • Almost always found in conifer trees
    • Chestnut brown cap contrasts with paler throat and buffy breast
    • Blue-gray back and wings
    • © Rudi Nuissl, Genessee, Colorado, September 2011

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Brown-headed Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Nearly identical to Pygmy Nuthatch but with no range overlap
    • Restricted to pine forests of Southeast U.S.
    • Paler white and less buffy on flanks
    • Brown cap averages lighter and tawnier than Pygmy Nuthatch
    • © Dawn Vornholt, Georgia, December 2009
  • Adult female

    Bushtit

    Adult female
    • Chubbier and more short-necked than Pygmy Nuthatch
    • Long tail extends well past wings
    • Plain gray/brown overall with no contrasting markings
    • Tiny, stubby black bill
    • © Bob Gunderson, Fort Mason Community Gardens, San Francisco, California, October 2011
  • Adult

    Red-breasted Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Smaller-headed than Pygmy Nuthatch
    • Bold, contrasting stripes on head
    • Rich, buffy/orange covers breast and belly
    • © Matt MacGillivray, Brighton, Ontario, April 2008
  • Adult

    White-breasted Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Larger and more elongated than Pygmy Nuthatch
    • Black cap and nape
    • Bright white face
    • Pale gray/white underparts with dark rufous on undertail
    • © Gary Hostetter, September 2008

Similar Species

White-breasted Nuthatches are larger with a black hood and a white face, including white all the way around the eye, instead of the Pygmy Nuthatch’s crisp brown cap. Red-breasted Nuthatches have a prominent white stripe over the eye and reddish-cinnamon underparts. The Brown-headed Nuthatch of the southeastern U.S. looks very similar to the Pygmy Nuthatch, but their ranges don’t overlap: Brown-headed Nuthatches don’t get any farther west than eastern Texas. Bushtits are squeaky, flocking birds, too, but they have much longer tails than the stubby Pygmy Nuthatch.

Backyard Tips

If you live near their long-needled pine habitat, you can attract Pygmy Nuthatches with suet and sunflower feeders, and possibly attract a breeding pair to a nest box. If you decide to put up a nest box, make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

Because they usually forage in tall pine trees, Pygmy Nuthatches can be challenging to see. Look for them in open pine forest (especially ponderosa) in the West. Listen carefully for sharp, high-pitched peep calls—Pygmy Nuthatches are very vocal but they don’t sing discrete songs, so it can be easy to overlook the constant background noise of their chattering. They travel in large groups, so keep watching if you see one flying across an opening from one tree to the next. More are likely to follow. With a bit of patience, you can probably get a good look at one as it scales a trunk or rustles around amidst a cluster of pine needles.