Brown-headed Nuthatch Life History

Habitat

Habitat ForestsBrown-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. Back to top

Food

Food InsectsBrown-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. Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest CavityMales 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.

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.

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size:3-7 eggs
Egg Length:0.6-0.7 in (1.4-1.7 cm)
Egg Width:0.4-0.6 in (1.1-1.4 cm)
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.
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Behavior

Behavior Bark ForagerBrown-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. Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low ConcernBrown-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. Back to top

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.

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Credits

Karlson, Kevin and D Rosselet. 2015. Birding by Impression. Living Bird no. 25:34-42.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. (2016). The State of North America's Birds 2016. Environment and Climate Change Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski, Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2017). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 2.07.2017. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.

Slater, Gary L., John D. Lloyd, James H. Withgott and Kimberly G. Smith. 2013. Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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