Scientific Name: Sitta pusilla
Description: Male and female brown-headed nuthatches have brown crowns, bluish-gray wings and backs, and a creamy white underside. Immature birds look similar to the adults but are duller in color.
Size: Brown-headed nuthatches are smaller than their red- and white-breasted relatives. They are only 3 to 4 inches long with a wingspan of 6 to 7 inches.
Diet: Brown-headed nuthatches eat insects and pine seeds. They are one of the few birds that exhibit tool use to find food. They carry a loose piece of bark in their beak and use this to pry up other pieces of bark in search of insects and spiders underneath. Sometimes they also use bark tools to cover up seed caches, but brown-headed nuthatches do not store as much food as other nuthatches. Nuthatches use tree limbs to hold seeds steady while they peck them open with their beaks.
Predation: These birds nest in tree cavities fairly low to the ground, which makes it easier for predators like snakes, raccoons, cats, and squirrels to get to them.
Habitat: Brown-headed nuthatches are pine specialists that live in mature forests. They excavate nests in snags (dead standing trees) or utilize abandoned cavities left by woodpeckers.
Range: Brown-headed nuthatches are non-migrants. They are found year round as far north as the Delmarva Peninsula, south to Florida, and west to Arkansas and Texas. There is also a population in the Bahamas.
Life History and Reproduction: Brown-headed nuthatches are monogamous during the breeding season, and some stay with the same partner for a number of years. Pairs can excavate their own nests in the soft, rotting wood of snags, but they must rely on woodpecker cavities or nesting boxes when snags aren’t available. Nests are usually built less than 10 feet off the ground. Some nuthatches weatherproof their nests from the rain by filling in crevices with plant material. After the nest is prepared, the female lays three to nine eggs. Her mate assists her in caring for the young, as might a “helper” bird that is usually a young male relative of the pair. Brown-headed nuthatches are territorial and readily defend their nest during the breeding season. They are also social birds and sometimes forage in groups.
Fun Fact: Unlike woodpeckers which use their stiff tails to balance on vertical surfaces, nuthatches can hold tight with just their legs. This enables them to walk up as well as down tree trunks.
Conservation Status: Brown-headed nuthatches are declining due to the destruction of their pine forest habitats. Logging removes the trees they need for foraging, and fire prevention prevents new snags from being created. Therefore, nesting sites are limited. Another pine specialist species in the southeast is the red cockaded woodpecker. This bird is federally listed as endangered, and conservation efforts dedicated toward its habitat may provide benefits for brown-headed nuthatches as well.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birdscope
Cornell Lab of Ornithology Nestwatch Resource Center
IUCN Red List
North Carolina Wesleyan College