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Four Nuthatches, Four Ways to Make It Through a Cold Winter

By Gustave Axelson
A White-breasted Nuthatch in its characteristic upside-down stance. Photo by Brian Kushner via Birdshare.

Of all the regulars at your bird feeder in winter, nuthatches are the ones that are just a tad quirky. They move differently than other birds, scaling the trunks of nearby trees up, down, and sideways with the erratic motion of a wind-up toy. They also sound different, giving a funny little nasal nyuk-nyuk-nyuk or peeping or squeaking. And they look different, sort of plump with a straight, sharp bill.

Winter is the perfect time to observe how nuthatches earned their common name, as they jam large seeds and nuts into tree bark before whacking them with their sharp bill to hatch out the seed from the inside.

Nuthatches are also into caching, meaning they store food to eat later. They often store seeds, one at a time, under the loose bark of a tree, typically hiding their cache with a piece of bark, lichen, moss, or snow. Scientists have observed nuthatches retrieving and eating more cached seeds when the weather gets colder, meaning they may use caching as a strategy for keeping a ready food supply throughout winter.

In North America there are four species of nuthatch; each one using a slightly different suite of behaviors to make it through the cold winter months. Match the species to the map, and let us know if you’ve seen any of these behaviors near you:

North America is home to four species of nuthatch, each with special strategies to survive cold winter months.

White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis): In winter, White-breasted Nuthatches survive by staying in mixed flocks and using caching to have a steady supply of food. These birds join foraging flocks led by chickadees or titmice, perhaps partly because more eyes in a group make food easier to find and predators easier to spot. The winter feeder watcher may notice that male White-breasted Nuthatches can be rude, by human standards, pushing females aside at a platform full of bird seed. And nuthatches may steal from each others’ caches, so they tend to fly off in opposite directions from a feeder to avoid leading an onlooking bird to their secret stashes of seeds.

Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis): Red-breasted Nuthatches live in the North Woods and mountain forests of the West, where their excitable yank-yank calls sound like tiny tin horns being honked in the treetops. These little birds survive the cold months by migrating to areas with a more reliable winter food supply. Red-breasted Nuthatches at the northern end of their range in Canada migrate south every year, though southern populations don’t move unless the conifer seed crop is poor. When that happens, large numbers of Red-breasted Nuthatches can irrupt as far south as the Gulf Coast.

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Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla): One of the few birds found almost exclusively in the United States, the Brown-headed Nuthatch lives in the pine forests of the southeastern states (with another small isolated population in the Bahamas). Like other nuthatches, Brown-headed Nuthatches may rely on caches of food for the winter, but they also have another trick up their sleeve: they are one of the few birds that use tools, utilizing a piece of bark as a lever to pry up the bark on a tree and look for food. Their tools give them access to additional sources of food in the winter, and they may carry their bark tool from tree to tree and also use it to cover up a seed cache.

Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea): Small even by nuthatch standards, Pygmy Nuthatches are tiny bundles of hyperactive energy that climb up and down ponderosa pines in the West, all the while squeaking like a rubber ducky. They are highly social and use their sociability to get them through the winter. During the cold months, they pile into a hole in a tree and roost communally; as many as 100 may share a roost. Pygmy Nuthatches survive cold nights by huddling together and going into torpor, letting their body temperature drop into hypothermia in order to conserve energy. They are the only birds in North America that combine these three energy-saving mechanisms (roosting in tree cavities, huddling together, and torpor) into one winter-survival strategy.

From left: White-breasted Nuthatch by Bill Thompson, Red-breasted Nuthatch by Kirchmeier, Brown-headed Nuthatch by Andrew Jordan, Pygmy Nuthatch by Bob Gunderson, all via Birdshare.

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