Living Bird Magazine
Brown-headed NuthatchSitta pusilla
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Sittidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Trepador Cabecipardo (Spanish)
- Sittelle à tête brune (French)
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.