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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.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
3.9–4.3 in
10–11 cm
Wingspan
6.3–7.1 in
16–18 cm
Weight
0.4 oz
10 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Golden-crowned Kinglet, smaller than a Tufted Titmouse.
Other Names
  • Sitelle à tête brune (French)
  • Sita del Pinar (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Tool use in animals is rare, but the Brown-headed Nuthatch sometimes uses a piece of bark as a lever to pry up other bark to look for goodies below. If it finds a particularly good piece of bark it may even carry the bark tool from tree to tree or use it to cover up its stash of seeds.
  • The Brown-headed Nuthatch often joins mixed-species foraging flocks in winter. In these flocks the nuthatch competes for food with the Pine Warbler, another pine specialist. These 2 species push each other out of the best foraging spots, but there is no clear winner; the nuthatch attacks the warbler just as frequently as the warbler attacks the nuthatch.
  • Unlike most songbirds, Brown-headed Nuthatches are cooperative breeders and sometimes have helpers at the nest. The helpers are usually young males that stick around to help their parents with nest building, feeding the incubating female, or feeding the new nestlings.
  • At night Brown-headed Nuthatches may spend the night sleeping in a tree hole or nestled among pine needles. Sometimes the male will even join the female in the nesting hole for the night.
  • Brown-headed Nuthatches are social birds. Members of the family group frequently preen each other, a behavior known as allopreening. They sit side-by-side on a branch and reach over to straighten each other’s feathers.
  • The oldest recorded Brown-headed Nuthatch was at least 5 years, 9 months old, when it was recaptured during banding operations in Alabama in 1960. It had been banded in the same state in 1954.

Habitat


Forest

Brown-headed Nuthatches make Southeastern pine forests their year-round homes. They’re most common in open, mature stands of loblolly, shortleaf, longleaf, and slash pine. These habitats evolved with frequent, mild fires which help keep the understory open and create standing dead trees that nuthatches need for nesting. They also occur in mixed pine-hardwood forests, although less frequently than open and mature pine forests.

Food


Insects

Brown-headed Nuthatches primarily eat spiders and insects such as bark-dwelling cockroaches, beetle larvae, and egg cases during the warmer months. They scour tree trunks, branches, twigs, and pine needle clusters for insects. In the colder months they eat mostly pine seeds. Unlike most birds, Brown-headed Nuthatches sometimes use tools. They use a small piece of bark to pry away flakes of tree bark to eat insects hidden below.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–7 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.7 in
1.4–1.7 cm
Egg Width
0.4–0.6 in
1.1–1.4 cm
Incubation Period
14 days
Nestling Period
18–19 days
Egg Description
Cream-colored with reddish brown dots and blotches.
Condition at Hatching
Naked with patches of light gray down. Eyes closed.
Nest Description

Brown-headed Nuthatches use existing holes in standing dead trees or excavate their own nesting hole in dead and decaying trees by pecking at the surface and rapidly flinging away the excavated material. Once they’ve completed the cavity they add feathers, cotton, pine seed wings, or bark strips to line the bottom. It takes them anywhere from 1 to 6 weeks to complete the nest depending on whether they use an existing hole or they excavate their own. The entrance to the cavity is about 1–1.5 inches in diameter. Most cavities are about 5–10 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Cavity

Males select the location of the nest, typically in a dead and decaying tree, but they also use existing nuthatch or woodpecker holes, nest boxes, fence posts, and telephone poles. Nest holes can be as high as 88 feet above the ground.

Behavior


Bark Forager

Brown-headed Nuthatches zigzag across the tops of small branches peering over one side of the branch and then the next looking for insects. They use their chisel-like bill to probe under pieces of bark, but unlike most songbirds, they sometimes also use small chips of bark as tools to pry underneath bark to look for hidden insects. They eat smaller insects on the spot, but with larger insects they may tear off the limbs or take them to a nearby branch to break into pieces before eating. They also take pine seeds to a nearby limb and hammer at them until the seed opens. They store extra seeds for later in a cache, such as under a loose piece of bark or in a tree crevice, sometimes using bark chips to cover it up. Unlike Brown Creepers and woodpeckers, they do not lean against their tails to hitch up and down trees; instead their large and strong feet help them cling to the tree. They fly weakly between trees with shallow dips, a good indication that these nuthatches don't move long distances. In fact, they are year-round residents, and some individuals occupy the same territory year after year. Males establish and maintain the bond with their mate by offering them food. Once they form pairs they often mate with the same individual for several years. Sometimes young from the previous season(s) help their parents raise offspring, a behavior known as cooperative breeding. Helpers assist with territorial defense, nest construction, and feeding nestlings. Brown-headed Nuthatches nest in tree holes or cavities and also roost in them during the winter. During the winter, they forage in flocks with other species including Eastern Bluebirds, Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Pine Warblers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and several woodpecker species.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Brown-headed Nuthatches are common throughout Southeastern pine forests, but populations declined by about 24% between 1966 and 2015, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 1.1 million, with almost all living year-round in the United States, except for a small population on Grand Bahama. This U.S.-Canada Stewardship species rates a 13 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. Because Brown-headed Nuthatches occur primarily in mature pine forests in the Southeast they are sensitive to logging practices and fire suppression that alter the quality of the forest. Logging practices or fire suppression can reduce the number of standing dead trees that they need for nesting. Suppression of naturally occurring mild fires can result in densely vegetated understories where Brown-headed Nuthatches tend to be less common. The population on Grand Bahama Island, which is possibly a distinct subspecies, is nearly gone, probably the result of logging.

Credits

Range Map Help

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

Migration

Resident

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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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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