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Brown-headed Nuthatch

Named after their bown heads, these small birds are similar to creepers, but they have several key differences.

A sedentary species of southeastern pine forests, the Brown-headed Nuthatch is known to use tools, typically a flake of bark that is used to remove additional flakes of bark in an effort to find insects or insect larvae. Brown-headed Nuthatches also eat many pine seeds.

Brown-headed Nuthatches nest very low, particularly for a cavity nester. Well decayed trees that are easy to excavate a nest cavity in are used, which often means that the tree may fall by the following nesting season, so a new location may need to be found each year.

 

Description of the Brown-headed Nuthatch

BREEDING MALE

The Brown-headed Nuthatch has gray upperparts, a brownish cap, whitish underparts, a short, squared, gray tail, and a straight, sturdy bill.  Length:  in.  Wingspan: 6.5 in.

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

Female

Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

None.

Juvenile

Similar to adults.

Habitat

Pine woods, or pine woods with mixed deciduous trees.

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Diet

Primarily insects and seeds, especially pine seeds.

Behavior

Forages on trunks and limbs, and sometimes stores seeds in bark crevices.

Range

Brown-headed Nuthatches are limited to the pine forests of the southeastern states, and have declined in recent decades.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Brown-headed Nuthatch.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

 

Fun Facts

Brown-headed Nuthatches sometimes use a piece of bark as a prying tool to search for insects.

Some Brown-headed Nuthatch pairs have an additional helper that assists with feeding the young.

Vocalizations

The call of the Brown-headed Nuthatch is likened to the emphatic, two-note squeak of a rubber duck toy being squeezed and released.

 

Similar Species

Pygmy Nuthatch
The Pygmy Nuthatch is very similar though the cap color is grayer, and the ranges of the two species do not overlap.

 

Nesting

The nest is a cavity typically excavated in the rotting wood of a stump or fencepost. It is often placed quite low, only a few feet from the ground, and is lined with bark fibers, wood chips, and pine seed ‘wings.”

Number: Usually lay 4-6 eggs, white in color and heavily marked with reddish-brown.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 14 days and leave the nest in another 18-19 days, but continue to associate with the adults for some time.

 

Bent Life History of the Brown-headed Nuthatch

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Brown-headed Nuthatch – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.

 

BROWN-HEADED NUTHATCH
SITTA PUSILLA PUSILLA LathamHABITS

The above name is now restricted to the northern race of the brown-headed nuthatch, with a range entirely north of the Florida boundary; it breeds along the Atlantic slope as far north as southern Delaware, in the Gulf States as far west as eastern Texas, and up the Mississippi Valley as far as eastern Arkansas and southern Missouri.

Its favorite haunts are in the pine woods, especially in the more open parts and in the clearings and burnt-over areas, where it finds a number of old stumps in which to excavate its nest; but it is found also to some extent in mixed forests of pines and hardwoods and in some of the small cypress swamps in such woods. M. P. Skinner (1928) says that, in North Carolina, he has found it “on the trunks of loblolly pines, long-leaf pines, shrub oaks, gums and hardwood trees of various kinds.”

Dr. Eugene E. Murphey (1937) says that, in the middle Savanna Valley, it “prefers open pine woods and deadenings and seems to have a particular fondness for large pines which have been riven by lightning. Within the last 15 years, many areas of impounded water have been created, some for power, others for fishing, with the resultant death of the trees where the water level has been raised. In a short time the bark falls from these trees leaving a denuded, decaying trunk which seems to be most attractive as a nesting site. Six nests were found so located in a pond of not more than fifty acres in extent in Richmond County, Georgia, 1920.”

Nesting: The brown-headed nuthatch builds its nest in a tree, stump, or post, which apparently is usually, if not invariably, partially or wholly excavated by the birds themselves. I can find little evidence that it occupies old holes of the woodpeckers, but it may enlarge a natural crevice or cavity. The height from the ground varies from 2 to 50 feet, wherever it can find the right conditions; but most of the nests recorded have been far below the higher figure, nearly all of them at less than 10 feet above ground. A preference seems to be shown for pines or pine stubs, often fire-blackened stumps, and for dead trees. Nests have been found in a dead apple-tree stump, a birch stub, a pear tree, an ash tree, and probably in several other kinds of trees. The cavity is usually excavated to a depth of from 6 to 9 inches, uncommonly more or less. This is sometimes filled with only dry grasses and weed stems, but more often with strips of inner bark, chips of wood, wool, cotton, strips of corn husks, and perhaps a few feathers; the leaves of pine seeds are favorite nesting material and are found in many nests, sometimes forming the entire nest. Frequently the nest hole is excavated in a fence post, a gate post, or a telegraph or telephone pole.

Nesting begins early; both birds take part in excavating the holes; and often several holes are started before one is finally selected for the nest. Mr. Skinner (1928), in the sandhills of North Carolina, on March 16, 1927, “found a pair industriously digging in the dead stub of a small gum tree standing on the shore of a small lake. This stub was 12 feet high and 8 inches in diameter, and the birds were at work 8 feet above the ground. The digging bird (and only one worked at any one time) worked in all positions, but really preferred to hang head downward from the trunk above the hole; even when working in this position, it did not touch its tail to the bark, except accidentally. This Nuthatch gave its strokes like a woodpecker, but slower and at a rate of about 50 strokes a minute for at least 30 minutes. Then its mate came and relieved it. Although these birds were small, their digging strokes were powerful and could be heard quite a distance, perhaps as much as 200 yards, and had a rhythmical beat.”

C. S. Brimley (Pearson, Brimley, and Brimley, 1919) made some notes on the time required by four pairs of brown-headed nuthatches to make and line their nests and lay their eggs: “The first pair I noted had finished digging out the hole and had commenced to line it on March 22. Sixteen days later the nest contained four fresh eggs. Pair No. 2 had just begun building on April 16, and in 10 days more the nest was finished and fresh eggs laid. Pair No. 3 worked for 22 days on one hole, and when I then lost patience and broke it out to see what they had done, they had not even started to line it. They then commenced on another stump, and in 22 more days had the excavation completed, lined, and three eggs laid. Pair No. 4 dug a hole, lined it, and laid three eggs in 13 days.”

Arthur T. Wayne (1910) says that, in South Carolina, “the hole, which is excavated by both sexes, ranges from 6 inches to 90 feet above the ground, and is generally dug in a dead pine stump or tree, though sometimes a fence post is used. * * * The nest is constructed chiefly of the leaf-like substance in which the seeds of the pine are enclosed, and I have often wondered at the infinite number of trips the birds make in carrying, one at a time, these soft and delicate pine seed-wings.”

Charles R. Stockard (1905) writes thus of the nesting habits of this nuthatch in Mississippi:

In the old pine deadenings of Adams County this small bird was found nesting in considerable numbers. They dug their own burrow but it was a badly botched affair, nothing about it suggesting the even smoothness of a woodpecker’s hollow. The Nuthatch makes a small entrance through the bark of a dead snag, then usually, rather than burrow into the stump itself, they scooped out an irregular cavity by removing the soft wood that generally lies just under the bark. This burrow ran a crooked course but generally extended 10 or 15 inches below the entrance. In this cavity they placed a nest of soft fibers, moss, cotton, and wool. The burrows were usually only a few feet from the ground but one was found 12 feet up. * * * On one occasion when the bark was pulled away exposing a nest while the female sat upon it, she could not be made to leave until pushed off with my finger.

Eggs: Nests of the brown-headed nuthatch have been reported to contain as few as three eggs and as many as nine, but the prevailing numbers are five or six, most commonly five. The eggs are ovate or rounded-ovate in shape, and they have practically no gloss. The ground color is usually white, but sometimes light creamy or buffy white. They are usually more heavily or more profusely marked than are the eggs of other nuthatches and are often very handsome. The markings may consist of fine dots evenly distributed, or small spots or blotches more or less concentrated about the larger end; rarely the ground color is largely obscured by the heavier markings. The prevailing colors of the markings are various shades of reddish brown, “ferruginous” or “cinnamon-rufous”; some eggs are quite heavily blotched with “chestnut”; and some show underlying spots or small blotches of various shades of lavender or “plumbeous.” The measurements of 50 eggs average 15.5 by 12.3 millimeters; eggs showing the four extremes measure 16.7 by 12.6, 15.2 by 14.2, 14.1 by 12.3, and 16.6 by 11.4 millimeters.

Young: The period of incubation is said to be about 14 days, and Wayne (1910) says that both sexes share this duty; the male sometimes calls the female off the nest while she is incubating. According to Mr. Wayne (1910), only one brood is raised in a season. Both parents help to feed the young in the nest and for some time after they leave it, while they continue to travel about in the tree tops in family parties. Dr. Francis Harper (1929) describes such a family party as follows:

About 5 p. m. on April 10 I noticed a number of Brown-headed Nut-hatches among some pines in an old field. Presently three or four of them huddled together a couple of feet from the tip of a long limb 35 feet from the ground. The limb was well provided with twigs and needles. Then a couple of others began visiting those lined up on the limb and feeding them. I was astounded to realize that fledglings were abroad thus early in the season. Sometimes the adults passed over the food from a perch on the same level, but about as often as not they clung to the under side of the limb in acrobat fashion and fed the youngsters from below.

By degrees several more came and lined up on the limb, till there were finally six, if not seven, all touching each other in close array. Some faced in one direction, some in the other. They kept up a gentle, musical twittering. The adults often gave their loudest call (a nasal, twanging knee-tnee; knee~tnee-tnee) as they searched the pine cones, limbs, and trunks for food. They also gave, while so engaged, a much lower, conversational note: pik. Once in a while one of them would hammer some piece of food on a limb, In the manner of one of the larger species of nuthatches.

Up to about 5:30 p. m. the old birds fed the youngsters assiduously, returning every half minute or so. Then, when the latter were pretty well quieted, though the sun had scarcely set, the old birds disappeared for some minutes. Eventually they returned, but did not go to the young ones, merely feeding industriously in the adjacent trees. All this was so like a human family, where the babies are given an early supper and put to bed, after which the parents can attend to some of their own wants.

I waited till after 6 o’clock to see if the adults might not join their brood, but apparently that was not their intention. * * * It seemed strange that a hole-nesting species should roost thus in the open.

Aretas A. Saunders tells me that, at a nest he watched in Alabama, “both parents fed the young, each showing its individuality by approaching the nest from a different direction than the other. They carried insects in their bills, but only a few measuring worms could be identified. They removed exereta from the nest and carried it away.”

Plumages: I have seen no very young nestlings of this nuthatch. The juvenal plumage is fully acquired before the young birds leave the nest. In this plumage the young bird is similar to the adult, but the coloration is duller and paler. The brown of the head and neck is grayer, or nearly all gray, and the white nuchal patch is indistinct or obsolete; the greater wing coverts are edged with pale brownish buff; the white in the tail is less extensive; and the underparts are more extensively and more deeply washed with brownish buff. After the postjuvenal molt, in summer, the young bird becomes practically indistinguishable from the adult.

Adults have a complete postnuptial molt, beginning in July, after which in fresh plumage the brown of the head is darker, and the underparts are more extensively and more decidedly buffy than in spring birds; these colors fade more or less before winter. The sexes are alike in all plumages.

Food: I can find no very extensive analysis of the food of the brown-headed nuthatch. The bird is mainly insectivorous, searching diligently in the crevices of the bark on the trunks and branches of the pines for its food, even out to the tips of the twigs and among the needles. It forages, also, on many other kinds of trees, old stumps, fence posts, telegraph poles, buildings, or anywhere else that it can find insects or spiders hidden in nooks and corners. It seems to be especially fond of pine seeds, fragments of which are generally found in such stomachs as have been examined.

Arthur H. Howell (1924) says that “10 stomachs from Alabama examined in the Biological Survey contained remains of beetles, bugs, cockroaches, caterpillars, ants and other Hymenoptera, scale insects, and fragments of pine seeds.” Dr. H. C. Oberholser (1938) states that, in Louisiana, “the food of this bird consists chiefly of insects, which include moths, grasshoppers, beetles, many of these injurious kinds; ants, caterpillars, and scale insects; also pine seeds and spiders.” These, like all the other nuthatches, are very useful protectors of the trees and do no damage of consequence.

Behavior: Unlike the rather solitary red-breasted species, the brown-headed nuthatch is a decidedly sociable bird. During most of the year, except when the pairs are busy with their nesting activities, these nuthatches are almost gregarious; family groups or small parties of them may be seen trooping through the tree tops, chattering in friendly conversational tones, but each one apparently intent on its own vocation. They seem never still but are always full of life and restless activity. In their behavior they remind me of the red-bellied nuthatch, as they forage through the upper branches out to the ends of the terminal twigs, often hanging head downward from a bunch of pine needles. Like all the nuthatches, they are expert at creeping either up or down the trunks, often in an inverted position, or at exploring the under sides of branches. Mr. Skinner (1928) says: “In all this climbing, they move by short hops, generally with their bodies turned a little to one side or the other, and they may turn after going a few feet with their bodies turned one way, so that the other side is then uppermost. Occasionally, they perch crosswise on a twig and may rest motionless for some time in such a position.

“These little birds are very tame and friendly. When in pairs, they are devoted to each other. * * * Generally, they fly from tree to tree with a gently undulating flight, but with strong and rapid wing-beats.”

Voice: The voice of the brown-headed nuthatch is quite unlike that of either of the northern nuthatches and has been variously interpreted. There is a familiar nuthatch quality in the ordinary cha, cha, cha, or cah, cah, cah, or the short pit, pit; we know what kind of a bird to look for when we hear it coming to us from the tree tops in the lonesome pine barrens.

Mr. Skinner (1928) writes: “Perhaps these nuthatches do not ‘talk’ as much as some others. Yet, I have heard them utter a sweet little ‘pri-u, de-u, de-u,’ quite like a song, in the mating season. They also have a number of chirps and kissing notes, and a ‘dee-dee-dee’ comparable to a Chickadee’s note. A lively twitter is the call of one Brown-headed Nuthatch for its mate.”

Dr. Chapman (1912) says: “They are talkative sprites, and, like a group of school children, each one chatters away without paying the slightest attention to what his companions are saying. When feeding they utter a liquid, conversational pit-pit, a note which is accelerated and emphasized as the birds take wing. At intervals, even when the individuals of a troop are quite widely separated, they all suddenly break out into a thin, metallic dee-dee-dee or tnee-tnee-tnee.”

William Brewster (1882b) calls their usual utterance “whick-whick-whee’e’é whick-whicker-whicker.” And Nathan Clifford Brown (1878) writes: “While busily in search of food they have a subdued, conversational chatter which almost exactly resembles the notes usually uttered by the Goldfinch when similarly employed. Rather curiously, the two species have another call in common: the most frequent cry of the Nuthatch is remarkably like the Goldfinch’s meditative béyr-béh,: indeed, I have sometimes mistaken one for the other. Both sexes of the present bird have several other call-notes, all of which are characterized by a certain reedy harshness rendering them quite unlike the usual utterances of the two Northern species of the genus.”

Field marks: This small nuthatch could hardly be mistaken for the larger white-breasted species, and it is so plainly colored that it could easily be distinguished from the more conspicuously marked red-breasted nuthatch.

Winter: The brown-headed nuthatch seems to be a permanent resident even in the more northern portions of its range; in North Carolina, Mr. Skinner (1928) found “no variation in numbers during the winter or the migration seasons of other birds.” I can find no evidence of migration elsewhere, and apparently the birds remain all winter in or near their breeding haunts, with only limited wanderings into neighboring open spaces, or occasionally into the trees of villages and towns. They are much in evidence in winter, when they are associated in bands of from half a dozen to two dozen birds, made up of one or several families. These jolly bands of active playful birds are interesting to watch, as they chase each other about, almost never still, as if too full of energy and vitality. At this season they often join the loose gatherings of kinglets, titmice, pine warblers, bluebirds, and small woodpeckers that are roaming through the woods in winter, though such associations are probably due more to chance than to intent.

DISTRIBUTION

Range: Southeastern United States; nonmigratory.

The brown-headed nuthatch breeds north to Arkansas (Newport); southeastern Missouri (possibly Ink, Shannon County); northern Mississippi (luka); northwestern South Carolina (Spartanburg); eastern Virginia (Amelia and Petersburg); eastern Maryland (Queen Annes County); and southern Delaware (Seaford). East to the Atlantic coast and Bahama Islands (Great Bahama). South to southern Florida (Royal Palm Hammock) and the Gulf coast. West to eastern Texas (Houston) and Arkansas (Newport).

The entire species as above outlined is divided into three subspecies or geographic races. The typical brown-headed nuthatch (S. p. pusilla) occupies all of the continental range except Florida, where the birds have been described as the gray-headed nuthatch (S. p. caniceps). The birds of the Bahamas are a separate race.

Casual records: Several were seen near Keokuk, Iowa, in May 1893; a specimen was taken at St. Louis, Mo., on May 6, 1878; a specimen was obtained at Elmira, N. Y., May 24, 1888; while one was observed closely at Haddonfield, N. J., during the winter, about 1876.

Egg dates: Georgia: 22 records, March 11 to July 20; 11 records, March 24 to April 11, indicating the height of the season. Florida: 19 records, March 4 to May 10; 10 records April 2 to 14.

North Carolina: 19 records, April 4 to May 29.

Texas: 5 records, March 8 to April 18.

GRAY-HEADED NUTHATCH

SITTA PUSILLA CANICEPS Bangs

HABITS

The brown-headed nuthatch of peninsular Florida has now become the gray-headed nuthatch, not because it has grown gray with old age, and not because its head is very decidedly gray at that, but because the keen eyes of its describer have noted this and other minor differences. Outram Bangs (1898) gives it the following subspecific characters: “Size smaller than S. pusilla pusilla; bill larger; top of head much lighter brown, the feathers tipped and edged still lighter—often grayish; loral and post-ocular streak dark brown, in marked contrast to color of top of head; white spot on nape usually less extensive; under parts slightly darker, more plumbeous.”

The gray-headed nuthatch is recorded by Arthur H. Howell (1932) as “an abundant resident in northwestern Florida; moderately common in the central and southern parts.” It has been taken at least as far south as Miami. Its home is in the extensive open pine forests of the State, known as the “flatwoods.” The northern tourist, seeking a winter sojourn in Florida, rides in the southbound train for hour after hour with nothing to see from the car window but apparently endless miles of uninteresting flat pine barrens, until he wearies of the monotony. He does not appreciate the intriguing vastness of these almost boundless flatwoods; nor does he admire the stately beauty of the longleaf pines and the picturesque charm of the Caribbean pines. Only the naturalist fully appreciates them, for “there is a nameless charm in the flatwoods, there is enchantment for the real lover of nature in their very sameness. One feels a sense of their infinity as the forest stretches away into space beyond the limits of vision; they convey to the mind a feeling of boundless freedom. The soft, brilliant sunshine filters down through the needle-like leaves and falls in patches on the flower covered floor; there is a low, humming sound, something mimicking the patter of raindrops, as the warm southeast wind drifts through the trees; even the loneliness has an attraction,” as so well expressed by Charles Torrey Simpson (1923).

One may wander for many miles through these parklike woods, along the winding, grass-grown cart roads, but he never seems to get anywhere, as the trees seem to lead him on indefinitely; he may turn aside occasionally to examine the thicker vegetation about a stagnant pool, or to explore the more abundant bird life in one of the few scattered “cypress heads”; or in some wide open space, he may flush the stately sandhill crane from a larger grassy pond. But the three characteristic birds, which one finds everywhere in the flatwoods, are the red-cockaded woodpecker, the pinewoods sparrow, and this little nuthatch. The woodpecker climbs upward on the trunks of the pines; the sparrow flushes suddenly from any one of the many clumps of saw palmetto that carpet the forest floor and almost as suddenly drops out of sight into another patch; and the nuthatch may be seen climbing upward, downward, or sidewise, in true nuthatch fashion, on the trunk of a pine; or, perhaps more often, a little troop of them may be seen foraging in the tree tops and advertising their presence with their gentle twittering.

There is not much more to be said about the habits of the gray-headed nuthatch, which do not seem to differ materially from those of the more northern race. The eggs are indistinguishable. The measurements of 28 eggs average 15.0 by 11.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 16.1 by 12.1, 15.8 by 12.8, 14.1 by 11.2, and 14.4 by 11.0 millimeters.

The following account is contributed by Frederick V. Hebard:

“This race seems to be valid, since it is distinguishable in life from the brown-headed nuthatch with comparative ease, although their habits seem the same. The range is stated to be ‘Peninsula of Florida’ (A. O. U. 1931), but the nesting form in southeastern Georgia is unquestionably gray in crown color and within the size limit of this race. Comparatively limited records indicate that the gray-headed withdraws into Florida in cold winters and is replaced to a limited degree by the brown-headed nuthatch. In warm winters the species is so much more common that this range withdrawal may not then take place. In all years our little friend will be present by the middle of February and nest-building commences shortly thereafter. During the winter this species is usually seen 20 feet or more above the ground either in family flocks, flitting from pine tree top to pine tree top, or less commonly inching up or down a pine tree trunk. During nesting season they are usually seen from 20 feet down, but as soon as nesting is over they seem to return to the tree tops, returning earthward only to fill one of their feeding stations in a rotting sapling with acorns for the nesting season or perhaps to associate with other species in a bird wave (cf. Murphey, 1937) of which they do not seem to be an integral part. These waves seem to result from animation of insect life in damp, warmish weather after a chill. This results in true commensalism in such species as the Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, ruby-crowned kinglet, and black and white and orange-crowned warblers, which I consider integral parts of bird waves, and in an apparent but unreal commensalism, since they feed at another table, of such species as the downy and red-cockaded woodpeckers, phoebe, and brown or gray-headed nuthatches.”

Nesting: “My three nest records,” continues Mr. Hebard, were all less than 5 feet from the ground, but John W. Burch considered this unusual, as he has generally found them 4 to 20 feet up. I did see nest-building commencing in a 6-foot-high fence post on February 26, 1942, along the May Bluff road in Chariton County. Other records are:

1. Nest found April 14, 1942, in Camden County in a dead pine stump 4½ feet high, with an undetermined number of young.

2. Nest found April 23, 1942, in Chariton County in a charred pine stump 3 feet high, with young almost ready to fly. The nest hole was so deep that the nest was not over 20 inches from the ground. ‘When examined on May 13, 1942, the nest was empty except for great numbers of creamy-white pinfeathers. This nest was composed of strips of cypress bark, unmatured pine mast, one or two strands of Spanish moss, and an unidentified wool-like substance that may well have been an insect nest.

3. Nest found April 12, 1942, in Camden County, containing one egg about a foot down the top of a 4-foot pine fence post. From May 13 to 16, this nest contained three well-grown young whose mouths were always open when observed. On July 1, this nest was found covered by an incompleted bluebird nest.

It is extremely interesting to compare this with what has been written about the same race 40 or 50 miles away (Grimes, 1932): “A brown (-gray) -head was noted working on a newly started nest hole in a pine stump on February 20. Others were found from time to time, the two latest probably being second-brood nests—one May 16 with four large young, the other May 18, with an undetermined number of nearly fledged young.”

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of Birdzilla.com. He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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