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Pygmy Nuthatch

Sitta pygmaea ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: SITTIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Small even by nuthatch standards, Pygmy Nuthatches are tiny bundles of hyperactive energy that climb up and down ponderosa pines giving rubber-ducky calls to their flockmates. Their buffy-white underparts set off a crisp brown head, slate-gray back, and sharp, straight bill. Pygmy Nuthatches breed in large extended-family groups, which is one reason why you’ll often see a half-dozen at a time. Look for them in open forests of older ponderosa pines across the West.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
3.5–4.3 in
9–11 cm
Weight
0.3–0.4 oz
9–11 g
Relative Size
Smaller than a White-breasted Nuthatch; slightly larger than a Golden-crowned Kinglet.
Other Names
  • Petite sittelle, Sittelle pygmée (French)
  • Sita enana, Saltapalo enano (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Pygmy Nuthatch is one of only a few songbirds in North America (and only two nuthatch species worldwide) with nest helpers. Breeding pairs often get assistance from relatives—including their own grown offspring—when raising a young brood. The helpers defend the nest and feed incubating females and chicks.
  • They survive cold nights by sheltering themselves in tree cavities, huddling with family members and other Pygmy Nuthatches, and letting their body temperature drop into hypothermia. They are the only birds in North America that combine those three energy-saving mechanisms.
  • No records exist of Pygmy Nuthatches roosting alone. They always huddle in groups. In the 1950s, a biologist watched 150 Pygmy Nuthatches pile into roost holes in a single tree—at least 100 in a single hole.
  • A late Pleistocene fossil of a Pygmy Nuthatch, at least 11,000 years old, was unearthed in California. A fossilized member of its genus (Sitta) was found in France, possibly dating to the mid-to-late Miocene, at least 23 million years ago.
  • Pygmy Nuthatches in aspen forests of Arizona often dig out nest cavities within scars or darkened patches of bark. One incubating female repeatedly climbed out and covered the entrance with her body, her dark back camouflaged against a dark scar on the trunk, to prevent a red squirrel from finding the nest.
  • What does it take to keep such a tiny, hyperactive bird running? Pygmy Nuthatches weigh about a third of an ounce, and the food they eat each day adds up to a whopping 9 calories (or technically, kilocalories).

Habitat


Forest

Pygmy Nuthatches live almost exclusively in long-needled pine forests and are particularly closely associated with ponderosa pines. Look for them also in stands of other pines, including Jeffrey, Bishop, Coulter, Monterey, lodgepole, and Arizona white pine. Their typical forest habitat is open, parklike stands of older, large trees. They may occur in forests of pine mixed with oak, quaking aspen, maple, Douglas-fir, or white fir. Since they depend upon cavities in old trees (snags) for roosting and nesting, Pygmy Nuthatches are most abundant in forests that have escaped heavy logging and snag removal. They range up to 10,000 feet in the California mountains, and even higher in Mexico.

Food


Insects

Pygmy Nuthatches eat insects (and other invertebrates) and seeds. Flocks of Pygmy Nuthatches forage in pine trees, hopping busily up and down the trunk and out to the outermost tips of the branches. During the breeding season they eat mostly arthropods—including beetles, wasps, ants, bugs, caterpillars, and spiders—by probing cracks, scaling off loose bark, and gleaning from needle clusters and cones. In some locations their diet shifts to mostly pine seeds in the winter, while in others their winter diet resembles their breeding diet. Pygmy Nuthatches cache seeds year-round by hammering them into crevices or under flakes of bark on the tree, saving them for later.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
5–9 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.7 in
1.4–1.7 cm
Egg Width
0.4–0.5 in
1.1–1.3 cm
Incubation Period
12–17 days
Nestling Period
14–22 days
Egg Description
White, speckled with reddish brown or purplish brown.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, with eyes closed and tan-pink skin covered with smoky gray down.
Nest Description

Pygmy Nuthatches can excavate their own cavities, but often they just enlarge and adapt existing ones, creating irregular holes about 5–10 inches deep and 1–6 inches across. Both the male and the female, sometimes assisted by their offspring from previous years, help dig out the nest cavity and bring lining materials. In the bottom of the hole they build a nest cup of bark shreds, fine moss, grass, plant down, fur, wool, snakeskin, cocoons, and often feathers. They may also stuff similar materials in crevices within the cavity, helping to weatherproof the nest. The pair keeps lining the nest during egg-laying.

Nest Placement

Cavity

The male appears to take the lead in choosing a woodpecker hole or natural cavity as a nest site, usually in the trunk of a ponderosa pine or other long-needled pine, but sometimes in another conifer species or a quaking aspen. Pygmy Nuthatches nest in live trees, dead trees, dead parts of live trees, and nest boxes.

Behavior


Bark Forager

Pygmy Nuthatches are cooperative breeders: about one third of breeding pairs get help raising their young from 1–3 male relatives. These are often the breeding pair’s own sons from previous years; they help defend the nest and feed incubating females and chicks. To deter squirrels, Pygmy Nuthatches may sway threateningly from side to side or even cover the entrance with their bodies to make it less visible. In winter, multiple family groups join up to form large, chattering, highly social flocks that range over a foraging territory. These flocks also forage with other species including warblers, chickadees, bushtits, kinglets, woodpeckers, and juncos. In cold weather they seek out well-insulated cavities to spend the night. Pairs roost together and juveniles roost with their parents as part of larger groups. Sometimes more than 150 individuals sleep in a single tree, stacked up in squares, triangles, diamonds, oblongs, or tiers of birds. They use controlled hypothermia to withstand cold winter nights, a strategy which no other North American bird species uses in combination with group-roosting in cavities.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Pygmy Nuthatches tendency to move around in large groups makes them difficult to count with standardized surveys. Within their patchy range, populations appear to have stayed relatively stable from 1966 to 2014, though there is some indication of populations experiencing a small decrease every year according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 3 million with 77% living in the U.S., 19% in Mexico, and 3% in Canada. The species rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Pygmy Nuthatch is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. Throughout the twentieth century, logging, grazing, and fire suppression converted many ponderosa pine forests—previously parklike woodlands with large, tall trees favored by nuthatches—into mosaics of differently aged trees and dense thickets. The Pygmy Nuthatch population has presumably declined as a result, since the nuthatches rely on mature pines and standing dead trees for suitable nest sites and foraging habitat. Forest managers can help Pygmy Nuthatches in mature pine forests by allowing dead trees to remain standing—recommendations suggest that at least 7–12 large snags (at least 19 inches in diameter) should be left standing per hectare (2.5 acres) of forest. People can help increase Pygmy Nuthatch abundance by installing nest boxes in disturbed forest, which can double the number of breeding pairs in an area. Though they’re useful for nesting during the breeding season, boxes are rarely used for year-round roosting.

Credits

Range Map Help

Pygmy Nuthatch Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident (nonmigratory).

Backyard Tips

If you live near their long-needled pine habitat, you can attract Pygmy Nuthatches with suet and sunflower feeders. Find out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

You may be able to attract a breeding pair to a nest box. If you decide to put up a nest box, make sure you put it up well before breeding season. Attach a guard to keep predators from raiding eggs and young. Find out more about nest boxes on our Attract Birds pages. You'll find plans for building a nest box of the appropriate size on our All About Birdhouses site.

Find This Bird

Because they usually forage in tall pine trees, Pygmy Nuthatches can be challenging to see. Look for them in open pine forest (especially ponderosa) in the West. Listen carefully for sharp, high-pitched peep calls—Pygmy Nuthatches are very vocal but they don’t sing discrete songs, so it can be easy to overlook the constant background noise of their chattering. They travel in large groups, so keep watching if you see one flying across an opening from one tree to the next. More are likely to follow. With a bit of patience, you can probably get a good look at one as it scales a trunk or rustles around amidst a cluster of pine needles.

You Might Also Like

Four Nuthatches, Four Ways to Make It Through a Cold Winter, All About Birds blog, February 27, 2015.

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