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Brown-headed Nuthatch

Sitta pusilla ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: SITTIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

When the squeaky sound of a rubber ducky drifts down out of the canopy in a southern pine forest, be on the lookout for Brown-headed Nuthatches. These tiny blue-gray songbirds climb up, down, and around pine trunks and branches with the deftness of a rock climber. They cling to bark with their strong feet rather than leaning on their tails like a woodpecker. Brown-headed Nuthatches are social birds that travel in noisy family groups. Sometimes, offspring from previous years help their parents raise young.

Keys to identification Help

Nuthatches
Nuthatches
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The Brown-headed Nuthatch is a tiny, compact bird. It appears rather round thanks to its short tail, legs, and neck. It also has a chisel-like bill that looks a little too big for its body.

  • Color Pattern

    This bird is white below and gray above with a brown head. Finer inspection reveals a white spot on the back of the head and small white spots in the tail that are visible in flight. Males and females look similar.

  • Behavior

    Nuthatches zigzag their way up and down tree trunks and branches high in the canopy, squeaking as they go. Although their calls aren’t very loud there’s usually more than one in a group calling at the same time, so they won't go unheard. They are social birds and often fly in shallow dips from tree to tree with one trailing behind the other.

  • Habitat

    Brown-headed Nuthatches occur in Southeastern pine forests in areas with loblolly, shortleaf, longleaf, and slash pine trees. They are most common in open and mature pine forests and are less common in mixed pine-hardwood stands.

Range Map Help

Brown-headed Nuthatch Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Brown-headed Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Compact and short tailed
    • Blue-gray back
    • Brown head
    • © Andy Jordan, Burroughs Park, Texas, December 2010
  • Adult

    Brown-headed Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Compact and short tailed with pointed bill
    • Blue-gray back
    • Brown head
    • © Cre8foru2009, Georgia, December 2011
  • Adult

    Brown-headed Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Compact and short tailed
    • Blue-gray back
    • Brown head
    • © Cre8foru2009, Georgia, February 2014
  • Adult

    Brown-headed Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Compact and short tailed with pointed bill
    • Blue-gray back
    • Brown head
    • © Michael Libbe, Wekiwa Springs SP, Florida, November 2012
  • Adult

    Brown-headed Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Compact and short tailed
    • Whitish belly
    • Brown head
    • © Lew Scharpf, Auburn, Alabama, February 2009
  • Adult

    Brown-headed Nuthatch

    Adult
    • Compact and short tailed with pointed bill
    • Blue-gray back
    • Brown head
    • © Roy Cohutta, Dougherty County, Georgia, January 2010

Similar Species

Similar Species

Head markings and underparts are the key to separating the four species of North American nuthatches. Pygmy Nuthatches are slightly smaller than Brown-headed Nuthatches and look very similar, but their ranges do not overlap. Red-breasted Nuthatches are about the same size as Brown-headed Nuthatches, but they have a white eyebrow stripe, a black stripe through the eye, and cinnamon-colored bellies. White-breasted Nuthatches are noticeably larger and have white faces, black (not brown) crowns, and rusty plumage under the tail.

Backyard Tips

If you live in Southeastern pine forests, putting up a suet feeder may draw Brown-headed Nuthatches to your yard. Learn more about feeders and food types for the Brown-headed Nuthatch at Project FeederWatch.

Brown-headed Nuthatches nest in holes in standing dead trees, but they may nest in your yard if you put up a nest box for them. Head on over to NestWatch to download construction plans to build your very own Brown-headed Nuthatch nest box.

Find This Bird

Finding a Brown-headed Nuthatch means heading to the right place—a mature pine forest in the Southeast with an open understory. Soon after your arrival you’ll likely hear the sound of rubber duckies coming from the trees. This is the key to finding them. After that, it’s all about neck craning, as they tend to be high in the canopy. Watch for tiny birds zigzagging up and down tree trunks and branches picking at the bark—typically in groups, which can make them easier to find. If you can't find one foraging among the clumps of pine needles, you'll likely be able to spot them as they fly between trees with one bird trailing behind the other.

Get Involved

If you have bird feeders in your yard, join us at Project FeederWatch and tell us what birds you see at your feeders during winter.

You Might Also Like

eBird Occurrence Maps, Brown-headed Nuthatch

Like Chasing Tornadoes: The Fun And Challenge Of Mixed Species Flocks, Living Bird, Autumn 2014.

Cooperative Breeding? In My Backyard?, Project FeederWatch, January 15, 2015.

Four Nuthatches, Four Ways To Make It Through A Cold Winter, All About Birds, February 27, 2015.

Look out! The Backyard Bird Alarm Call Network, Living Bird, Winter 2016.

Where Is That Bird Going With That Seed? It’s Caching Food For Later, All About Birds, April 13, 2016.

Bird-friendly Winter Gardens, Birdsleuth, 2016.

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The Cornell Lab will send you updates about birds, birding, and opportunities to help bird conservation. You can unsubscribe at any time. We will never sell or give your email address to others.