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Brown-Headed Nuthatch

Brown-Headed Nuthatch

Sitta pusilla

Status: Not Listed

Classification: Bird

Description

Brown-headed nuthatches are social birds that can often be seen traveling in flocks. Male and female brown-headed nuthatches have brown crowns, bluish-gray wings and backs, and a creamy white underside. Immature birds look similar to adults, but are duller in color. Brown-headed nuthatches are smaller than their red- and white-breasted relatives. They are only three to four inches (8 to 10 centimeters) long with a wingspan of six to seven inches (15 to 18 centimeters).

Range

Brown-headed nuthatches are non-migratory. 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.

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. 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.

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 it 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 don't store as much food as other nuthatches. Nuthatches use tree limbs to hold seeds steady while they peck them open with their beaks. They are social birds and sometimes forage in groups.

Life History

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 (three meters) 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, and so might a “helper” bird, usually a young male relative of the pair. Brown-headed nuthatches are territorial and readily defend their nest during the breeding season. The longest known lifespan for a brown-headed nuthatch was nine years.

Conservation

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 keeps 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.

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 and down tree trunks.

Sources

Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology

National Audubon Society

NatureServe Explorer

North Carolina Wesleyan College

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology

The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species

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