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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.
|Habitat||Open pine woods and other conifers|
|Diet||Mostly insects and seeds|
|Nesting||Cavities of dead pine|
|Conservation||Least common in North America but still common where southern pin exists|
|Scientific name||Sitta pusilla|
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.
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.
The home of a Brown-headed Nuthatch can be found in pine forests in the southeastern parts of the U.S.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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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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