• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer
Help develop a Bird ID tool!

White-breasted Nuthatch

Sitta carolinensis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: SITTIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A common feeder bird with clean black, gray, and white markings, White-breasted Nuthatches are active, agile little birds with an appetite for insects and large, meaty seeds. They get their common name from their habit of jamming large nuts and acorns into tree bark, then whacking them with their sharp bill to “hatch” out the seed from the inside. White-breasted Nuthatches may be small but their voices are loud, and often their insistent nasal yammering will lead you right to them.

Jane Kim Mural
HummingbirdsSponsored Ad

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.1–5.5 in
13–14 cm
Wingspan
7.9–10.6 in
20–27 cm
Weight
0.6–1.1 oz
18–30 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Red-breasted Nuthatch; smaller than a Tufted Titmouse.
Other Names
  • Saltapalo blanco (Spanish)
  • Sittelle à poitrine blanch (French)

Cool Facts

  • The White-breasted Nuthatch is normally territorial throughout the year, with pairs staying together. The male has to spend more time looking out for predators when he’s alone than while he’s with his mate. That’s the pattern for most birds, and one reason why birds spend so much time in flocks. But the female nuthatch has to put up with the male pushing her aside from foraging sites, so she spends more time looking around (for him) when he’s around than when she is alone.
  • In winter, White-breasted Nuthatches join foraging flocks led by chickadees or titmice, perhaps partly because it makes food easier to find and partly because more birds can keep an eye out for predators. One study found that when titmice were removed from a flock, nuthatches were more wary and less willing to visit exposed bird feeders.
  • If you see a White-breasted Nuthatch making lots of quick trips to and from your feeder – too many for it to be eating them all – it may be storing the seeds for later in the winter, by wedging them into furrows in the bark of nearby trees.
  • The oldest known White-breasted Nuthatch was 9 years 10 months old.

Habitat


Forest

White-breasted Nuthatches are birds of mature woods, and they’re more often found in deciduous than coniferous forests (where Red-breasted Nuthatches are more likely). You can also find them at woodland edges and in open areas with large trees, such as parks, wooded suburbs, and yards.

Food


Insects

White-breasted Nuthatches eat mainly insects, including weevil larvae, wood-boring beetle larvae, other beetles, tree hoppers, scale insects, ants, gall fly larvae, caterpillars (including gypsy moths and tent caterpillars), stinkbugs, and click beetles, as well as spiders. They also eat seeds and nuts, including acorns, hawthorn, sunflower seeds, and sometimes crops such as corn. At birdfeeders they eat sunflower seeds, peanuts, suet, and peanut butter.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
5–9 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.8 in
1.8–2 cm
Egg Width
0.6 in
1.5 cm
Incubation Period
13–14 days
Nestling Period
26 days
Egg Description
Creamy white to pinkish-white, speckled with reddish brown, gray, or purple.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless and naked except for some down.
Nest Description

Females build the nest on their own, lining the nest cavity with fur, bark, and lumps of dirt. She then builds a nest cup of fine grass, shredded bark, feathers, and other soft material. White-breasted Nuthatches often reuse their nest holes in subsequent years.

Nest Placement

Cavity

White-breasted Nuthatches typically build their nests in natural tree cavities or abandoned woodpecker holes. They sometimes enlarge these holes but rarely excavate them entirely on their own (as Red-breasted Nuthatches often do). Nuthatches are smaller than woodpeckers, and White-breasted Nuthatches don’t seem bothered by nest holes considerably larger than they are. Despite their association with deciduous woods, they nest in both coniferous and deciduous trees. White-breasted Nuthatches sometimes use nest boxes.

Behavior


Bark Forager

White-breasted Nuthatches forage up, down, and sideways over tree trunks and around large branches. They often (though not always) start high in trees and move down them head first, pausing to crane their necks up and back, toward the horizontal, for a look around. They probe into bark crevices or chip away at wood to find food. When they find large nuts and seeds, they jam them into the bark and hammer them open. White-breasted Nuthatches often store seeds and insects one at a time, and somewhat haphazardly, under loose bark on their territory. They typically hide the food by covering it with a piece of bark, lichen, moss, or snow. White-breasted Nuthatches live in pairs year round and chase other nuthatches from their territory. Agitated birds fan their tails, flick their wings, or raise the feathers of the back. A bird backing down from a confrontation typically raises its bill and tail, and droops its wings. In winter White-breasted Nuthatches join groups of chickadees, titmice, and woodpeckers to forage.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

White-breasted Nuthatches are common and widespread, and their populations have been increasing since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 9.2 million with 85 percent occurring in the U.S., 5 percent in Canada, and 10 percent in Mexico. They rate a 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Like all birds that nest in holes in trees, White-breasted Nuthatches depend on having dead or partially dead trees left standing in their habitat. Too much pruning or felling of dead wood can reduce the nesting opportunities for this species.

Credits

Range Map Help

White-breasted Nuthatch Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident.

Backyard Tips

White-breasted Nuthatches are common feeder birds. You can attract them by offering large nuts such as sunflower and peanuts, and by putting out suet.

Consider putting up a nest box to attract a breeding pair. 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

Look for White-breasted Nuthatches along the main branches of large deciduous trees. They’ll likely be moving quickly at odd angles to the vertical. In winter you can find them in small flocks of chickadees and titmice; if you see one in a flock keep your eyes out, as there’s a good chance the bird’s mate is in the flock as well.

Get Involved

Keep track of the White-breasted Nuthatches at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

Free downloadable "Common Feeder Birds" poster from Project FeederWatch (PDF)

Check out our resources on attracting cavity-nesting birds and setting up a nest box. Then report any nesting activity to NestWatch

You Might Also Like

Risk Management for Chickadees, Living Bird, Autumn 2013

Explore sounds and video of White-breasted Nuthatches from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library archive

White-breasted Nuthatch from Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds (1948)