Four Nuthatches, Four Ways to Make It Through a Cold Winter

By Gustave Axelson
February 27, 2015
A White-breasted Nuthatch in its characteristic upside-down stance. Photo by Brian Kushner via Birdshare.
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Of all the regulars at your bird feeder in winter, nuthatches are the ones that are just a tad quirky. They move differently than other birds, scaling the trunks of nearby trees up, down, and sideways with the erratic motion of a wind-up toy. They also sound different, giving a funny little nasal nyuk-nyuk-nyuk or peeping or squeaking. And they look different, sort of plump with a straight, sharp bill.

Winter is the perfect time to observe how nuthatches earned their common name, as they jam large seeds and nuts into tree bark before whacking them with their sharp bill to hatch out the seed from the inside.

Nuthatches are also into caching, meaning they store food to eat later. They often store seeds, one at a time, under the loose bark of a tree, typically hiding their cache with a piece of bark, lichen, moss, or snow. Scientists have observed nuthatches retrieving and eating more cached seeds when the weather gets colder, meaning they may use caching as a strategy for keeping a ready food supply throughout winter.

In North America there are four species of nuthatch; each one using a slightly different suite of behaviors to make it through the cold winter months. Match the species to the map, and let us know if you’ve seen any of these behaviors near you:

North America is home to four species of nuthatch, each with special strategies to survive cold winter months.

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis): In winter, White-breasted Nuthatches survive by staying in mixed flocks and using caching to have a steady supply of food. These birds join foraging flocks led by chickadees or titmice, perhaps partly because more eyes in a group make food easier to find and predators easier to spot. The winter feeder watcher may notice that male White-breasted Nuthatches can be rude, by human standards, pushing females aside at a platform full of bird seed. And nuthatches may steal from each others’ caches, so they tend to fly off in opposite directions from a feeder to avoid leading an onlooking bird to their secret stashes of seeds.

Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis): Red-breasted Nuthatches live in the North Woods and mountain forests of the West, where their excitable yank-yank calls sound like tiny tin horns being honked in the treetops. These little birds survive the cold months by migrating to areas with a more reliable winter food supply. Red-breasted Nuthatches at the northern end of their range in Canada migrate south every year, though southern populations don’t move unless the conifer seed crop is poor. When that happens, large numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches can irrupt as far south as the Gulf Coast.

Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla): One of the few birds found almost exclusively in the United States, the Brown-headed Nuthatch lives in the pine forests of the southeastern states (with another small isolated population in the Bahamas). Like other nuthatches, Brown-headed Nuthatches may rely on caches of food for the winter, but they also have another trick up their sleeve: they are one of the few birds that use tools, utilizing a piece of bark as a lever to pry up the bark on a tree and look for food. Their tools give them access to additional sources of food in the winter, and they may carry their bark tool from tree to tree and also use it to cover up a seed cache.

Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea): Small even by nuthatch standards, Pygmy Nuthatches are tiny bundles of hyperactive energy that climb up and down ponderosa pines in the West, all the while squeaking like a rubber ducky. They are highly social and use their sociability to get them through the winter. During the cold months, they pile into a hole in a tree and roost communally; as many as 100 may share a roost. Pygmy Nuthatches survive cold nights by huddling together and going into torpor, letting their body temperature drop into hypothermia in order to conserve energy. They are the only birds in North America that combine these three energy-saving mechanisms (roosting in tree cavities, huddling together, and torpor) into one winter-survival strategy.

From left: White-breasted Nuthatch by Bill Thompson, Red-breasted Nuthatch by Kirchmeier, Brown-headed Nuthatch by Andrew Jordan, Pygmy Nuthatch by Bob Gunderson, all via Birdshare.

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  • Gloria Fester

    Have a few nut hatches here in Sask. Wondering if they nest here?

  • Rich Ness

    Our red breasted nuthatches stay in a mixed flock with our black capped and chestnut backed chickidees. They also stash nuts everywhere. In the spring we will occasionally see a sunflower sprouting from the side of a Douglas Fir. They also love the suit blocks we put ot for them and can be seen communal feeding with other birds.

    They are my personal favorite.

    Western Washington between Olympia and Mount Rainire.

  • Kevin

    i have two tube feeders filled with peanuts. I made them out of metal fabric. White breasted nuthatch(s) frequent these feeders. I enjoy watching them. After they extract a nut, they fly off to a nearby maple tree to either hide or eat their treat. They also have an unusual song.

  • Judy Filewich

    I live just north of Edmonton, Alberta an in the winter I too have white breasted nuthatches .I think I have 2 pairs that visit me for the winter.I would say that they have been coming for about the last 4/5 years.I also have 5 female rose breasted grosbeaks and yesterday I saw 1 male come to the feeders too.

  • Christine

    In late February, March and April, I was seeing the Red-breasted Nuthatch here in East Central Missouri. I had never had this bird before. I have had White-breasted Nuthatches for many years, so I knew this was special. I have not witnessed the Red-breast yet in 2015.

  • Sue Ansley

    So happy to have White-Breasted Nuthatches year round in my yard. Love to watch their antics.

  • Al Brooks

    A regular visitor here in central Saskatchewan. The red and white breasted are constantly at the bird feeder along with the Chickadees. If the Sparrows show up the nuthatches disappear until it quietens down and then they are back

  • Maggie

    I live in Greensboro, NC. For 4 years I have had white-breasted nuthatches coming to the feeders. They like the suet feeders the best but will come to the sunflower seed feeders as well. This past winter, the 5th in this house, I saw no nuthatches. I do not understand it, especially as this was a harsh winter for us.

  • Monty Brandes

    have both red and white-breasted at my feeder this winter at North Platte Ne.

  • Randy

    I have feeders at the front of my house where my four-year-old grandson can watch the birds come and go. When he first saw a nuthatch he asked, “Why is that bird moving upside down?”. He is learning to recognize common birds at the feeders.

  • Sue Burton

    Morning…sipping a hot coffee, outside watching the birds at the feeders..Happy!

  • Cody

    I have White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches year-round in my yard here in N. Arizona. Both species appreciate peanut butter very much. This winter I also have the company of a male Red-breasted Nuthatch. 3 species in one yard is pretty amazing.

  • Lisa

    We have a pair of Nuthatches (white breasted, I believe) pecking holes in our artificial stucco chimney!! They appear to be preparing to nest! Help!! Any idea how to get rid of them? I’ve stopped feeding the birds because of them! Not happy!

  • We have lived in the pines east of Chadron, NE for 37 years and always have red-breasted, white-breasted, and pygmy nuthatches year around. The pygmy’s are my favorite, we usually have 6-8. They feed on lard I put in a furrow cut in a log and black oil sunflower seeds.

  • Carol Neuman

    We have been feeding birds year round in Pickering ON. We have both red and white breasted nuthatches. The red breasted are our favorites because they come to take shelled peanuts from our hands! When they are ready to take a peanut they walk upside down at the patio window, or hang upside down at the patio door. They talk to us when they come close. We have also offered peanut butter as suet during this cold winter. The nuthatches make the winter that much finer.

  • Michael Rahman

    I believe I have a white Brested Nuthatch visiting my Bird Feeder. I also have brown headed Nuthatch nesting in a Tree Cavity.

    I have pictures but this site does not allow me to paste views.

  • victoria

    Thanks for your comment. That’s great that you get to enjoy two species of nuthatches near your home. If you’d like to share your pictures with us, visit our Birdshare flickr group: Thanks so much!

  • Mary Rose Kent

    I live in San Francisco, which has pygmy nuthatches seemingly everywhere (although not on my street, sad to say). A few years ago I put up a suet feeder on a tree out front, as I can’t see the backyard from my apartment, and nothing happened. No chickadees, no bushtits, no nuthatches. I’m guessing that because it generally doesn’t get all that cold here, they just forage all year round rather than eat from the suet feeder.

  • victoria

    Thanks for writing Lisa. Nuthatches may enlarge existing holes for nesting (e.g., ones made by woodpeckers), but they usually don’t excavate cavities on their own. However, if your stucco is soft for them, it could be a possibility. If they are pecking holes looking for food, then it probably means you have some insects in there that they are trying to get to. Take a look at our blog post Can Woodpecker Deterrents Safeguard My House? for more information.

  • Bob H

    Nice article! BUT … That range map is about as misleading as it could be. Your article is about winter, and the map seems to indicate only the ranges where the species can be found year-round. The range shown for Red-breasted, for example, is nowhere near representative of where they are in winter, with maybe half of its winter range not showing. If you only could show one map, it should have been a winter range map; given the subject of the article, I think that no map at all would have been better than this one.

  • Noreen Beer

    We enjoy watching the Red-Breasted Nuthatch at our seed and suet feeders in 100 Mile House, B.C. There are 4 birds, they mix well with the Chickadees, Pileated, Downey and Hairy Woodpeckers, and the Brown Creeper. They are here year-round and it is a delight to watch their comings and goings.

  • Cheryl

    Hello from Austin, Texas! I have had a pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches around since December. Unlike last winter when they spent a lot of time at my feeders, this year I’ve just seen them working nearby trees. Busy, adorable birds!

  • Conrad Mish

    I saw many White Breasted Nuthatches this winter in Western Massachusetts. I spend a lot of time filling my bird feeders all year long. I am glad to know they cache their food. I would hate for them to starve after I have lured them to my feeders. By the way, even though the squirrels eat the food I put out I am still feeding the birds indirectly. I saw a Turkey Vulture munching out on a squirrel who had a accident with a motor vehicle.

Four Nuthatches, Four Ways to Make It Through a Cold Winter