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Brown-Headed Nuthatch: Field Guide, Pictures, Habitat & Info

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Brown-Headed Nuthatch

Brown-headed Nuthatches are cheerful and perky little birds that can be seen swooping through pine forests and clambering around, up, down, and even upside down along tree trunks. They are usually found in pairs or groups, and their distinct rubber ducky-like calls are usually heard before they are seen.

They are annual residents in the canopies of southern pine forests but can also be frequent visitors to backyards when the conditions are inviting. The sweet birds are a delight for any birdwatcher and are not difficult to spot.

hummingbird dividerQuick Facts about the Brown-Headed Nuthatch

Brown Headed Nuthatch

Image Credit: Pixabay

Habitat Open pine woods and other conifers
Diet Mostly insects and seeds
Behavior Bark forager
Nesting Cavities of dead pine
Conservation Least common in North America but still common where southern pin exists
Scientific name Sitta pusilla
Lifespan: 9 years

Brown-Headed Nuthatch General Description

Brown-headed nuthatches are small birds reaching only 4 inches long, with a wingspan of 6–7 inches. Males and females have brown crowns, blue-gray wings and backs, and beige underparts.

A darker line separates the brown cap from the white cheeks and throat, but it is usually not too noticeable. They have white patches at the base of their tail, usually seen when in flight.

They are smaller than some of the other nuthatches, and the younger birds look much like the adults, but their coloring is paler.

Brown-Headed Nuthatch: Range, Habitat, Behavior, Diet & Nesting

Range

The Brown-headed Nuthatches do not migrate and can be found all year, as far north as the Delmarva Peninsula, south in Florida, and west in Arkansas and Texas. There is even a group of the birds in the Bahamas.

Brown Headed Nuthatch

Image Credit: Ryan Justice, Shutterstock

Habitat

The home of a Brown-headed Nuthatch can be found in pine forests in the southeastern parts of the U.S.

Behavior

Brown-headed Nuthatches are gregarious birds that travel in large, usually noisy groups.

It can be seen swooping and dipping from tree to tree with curiosity as it forages for insects.

The Brown-headed Nuthatch has strong feet to climb up and down around pine branches.

Family members often preen each other, a behavior known as allopreening. They sit together on a branch while reaching over to straighten each other’s feathers. In winter, you may see the Brown-headed Nuthatch competing for food with the Pine Warbler by pushing each other out of foraging spots.

The young males are usually seen assisting the parents with nest building, incubating and feeding.

Diet

In warmer months, the Brown-headed Nuthatch primarily eats insects that live in bark and around the pine. They are usually spiders, cockroaches, and beetle larvae. They use their beaks as tools to chisel away bark in the hope of discovering their next snack.

They also use small pieces of bark as prying tools to lift bark and expose the insects that are hiding away. While small insects are usually an on-the-spot snack, larger insects are generally taken to a branch nearby so the bird can remove its limbs and break them up into smaller pieces.

In the colder months, they will primarily eat seeds. They will use tools to hammer them open, and any extra seeds are stored for later in crevices or under a small piece of bark.

Brown Headed Nuthatch

Image Credit: Melinda Fawver, Shutterstock

Nesting

The male Brown-headed Nuthatch will usually choose the nesting site and find a hole in a tree that is soft and decaying or dig its hole by chiseling away at the surface. It will also utilize existing holes from other birds, fence posts, and telephone poles but usually rely on woodpecker cavities if nothing else is available. Their nests are 10 feet from the ground, 1–1.5 inches in diameter, and 5–10 inches deep. The hole is then lined with strips of bark, cotton, feathers, and pine seed wings and can take from 1–6 weeks to complete.

They are loyal, one partner birds during the breeding season, and some will even stay in the same pair for many years. Once the nest is complete and ready, the female will lay a clutch of about three to nine eggs. The eggs are usually beige-colored with red-brown spots, and the female will incubate for around 14 days.

eagle dividerHow To Find the Brown-Headed Nuthatch: Birdwatching Tips

What To Listen For

When you notice the sound of a squeaking rubber duck, you know a Brown-headed Nuthatch is nearby. The calls will usually include high-pitched notes that may seem mixed up, and while they’re foraging, you may notice a single soft note as they call groups of nuthatches.

Each squeak is repeated 1–12 times, and the sound will be amplified as other nuthatches join in.

What to Look For

Once you have determined their distinct vocalization, you need to keep your attention up in the canopies of the trees. You will notice groups of small birds dipping and zig-zagging from tree to tree, foraging, and picking at the bark.

When to Look

The Brown-headed Nuthatch is a non-migratory bird and will be a resident in the same forest all year round. In the winter, they are frequent visitors to backyard bird feeders.

Brown Headed Nuthatch

Image Credit: Cavan-Images, Shutterstock

Attracting Brown-Headed Nuthatches to Your Backyard: Tips & Tricks

During the winter, the Brown-headed Nuthatch enjoys eating seeds, which is a great time to attract them to your backyard. Here are some tips and tricks to attract these charming and entertaining birds to your yard.

  • The presence of dead trees on your property may attract nesting couples
  • Add peanut butter and suet to your feeder
  • Grow sunflowers
  • Grow trees that provide nuts such as acorns and hazelnuts
  • Minimize the use of insecticides
  • Position a birdbath close to a tree where the nuthatch is likely to visit
  • Nuthatches have even been observed fluttering in sprinklers, and timing garden watering with bird activity periods can help entice them to visit
  • Nuthatches will use cavities for shelter, and providing a bird box can be a safe, comfortable resting place
  • Nuthatches can move into old woodpecker holes if birders take steps to attract them, and older trees and hollow snags should be left alone
  • Providing enticing nesting sites can invite a pair to move in permanently
  • The box should be placed on a tree trunk high enough to provide security for the birds, but it should also be protected from predators to ensure the birds feel safe
  • Providing nesting materials like shredded bark and leaves can also persuade nuthatches to stay close

Brown-Headed Nuthatch Conservation: Is this Bird Threatened?

The population of the Brown-headed nuthatch is declining and is the least numerous of the species due to loss of habitat and nesting sites. They are unable to forage because logging and fire prevention methods prevent the creation of new habitats.

Climate change is also a threat as the temperatures increase. Spring heat waves can endanger the birds in their nest, and heavy rainfall can flood nests and prevent the parents from feeding their young.

hummingbird divider

Final Thoughts

The Brown-headed Nuthatch is a small, quirky little bird that is frequently found foraging and zig-zagging through the southern pines. They have a distinct vocalization that is usually amplified by other family members. Their chisel-like beaks allow them to forage under bark, and sometimes they will use the bark as a tool. Habitat loss sadly affects their population, but favorable conditions can attract them to any birdwatcher’s yard.


Featured Image Credit: theSOARnet, Pixabay

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.

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