Living Bird Magazine
Pygmy NuthatchSitta pygmaea
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Sittidae
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.More ID Info
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.
- Trepador Enano (Spanish)
- Sittelle pygmée (French)
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.
- 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 together, and letting their body temperature drop into hypothermia. They and the unrelated Vaux's Swift are the only bird species 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.
- 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).
- 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.