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Bent Life History of the White-breasted 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 White-breasted Nuthatch - the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.




The white-breasted nuthatch is a droll, earnest little bird, rather sedate and unemotional. He is no great musician and seems to lack a sense of humor. He has none of the irrepressible fidgetiness of the house wren, none of the charming happiness of the song sparrow; he appears to take life on a matter-of-fact level. He is short-necked, broad-shouldered, sturdy, quick and sure in his motions, suggesting an athlete, and as we study him on his daily round, as he hops up and down over the bark, we see that he is an athlete with marked skill as an acrobat, like the tumbling kind, as much at home upside down as right side up.

It is a characteristic pose of the nuthatch, perhaps unique among birds, to stand head downward on the trunk of a tree with the neck extended backward, the bill pointing straight outward from the bark.

Spring and courtship: If we have had a male nuthatch under our eye through the winter, either a bird roaming through a bit of woodland or one visiting our feeding station daily, we notice, as spring approaches, a change in his behavior: he begins to sing freely at all times of day, whereas previously he sang sparingly and only in the morning hours. At this time his deportment toward his mate changes also. All through the winter the pair has lived not far apart, feeding within hearing of each other, but the male has paid little attention to his mate; in fact, on the food shelf he has shown dominance over her; but now in the lengthening, warmer days of spring he becomes actively engaged over her comfort. A real courtship begins: he carries food to her and places it in her bill, he stores bits of nut in crevices of bark for her convenience, and he often addresses his singing directly to her. Standing back to her, he bows slowly downward as he sings, then in the interval before another song he straightens up, then bows as he sings again. The songs come with perfect regularity over and over again and can thus be recognized even in the distance as the courtship song.

We may imagine what a changing color scheme is presented to the female bird, if, as his song invites her to do, she glance his way: the black of his crown and his rough raised mane, then the blue-gray of his back, then the variegated black and white pattern of his expanded tail, then, perhaps, at the end of his bow, a flash of ruddy brown. At other times he approaches the female more aggressively, strutting before her with stretched-out neck and flattened crown, a pose of intimidation.

The change from the passive behavior of the winter months to active courtship takes place in New England early in April and indicates the advent of the nesting activities.

Nesting: Speaking of eastern Massachusetts, William Brewster (1906) says: "The favorite breeding haunts of the White-bellied Nuthatch are ancient woods of oak, chestnut or maple where the trees are of the largest size and more or less gone to decay." In these surroundings the bird commonly builds its nest high up in a tall tree, either in a natural cavity or in an old woodpecker's hole, or, in an orchard, it may make use of a knothole in an apple tree.

Edward H. Forbush (1929) states that nuthatches sometimes nest in a cavity excavated by the birds themselves in decayed wood. Such instances, however, must be of rare occurrence, for William Brewster once told me that he had never known of a case.

Mr. Bent (MS.) describes a nest "about 30 feet from the ground near the top of a large crooked swamp maple that stood near the end of a strip of woods on a private estate. The cavity was a rotted-out crevice in a nearly horizontal branch. The opening was too narrow for me to insert my small hand and had to be enlarged. The nesting material consisted of a small handful of soft fur that looked like rabbit fur, but nothing else; the cavity was very small and not over a foot deep."

Thomas D. Burleigh (1931) says of the bird in the mountainous regions of central Pennsylvania:

This species is one of the most characteristic birds of the scattered short stretches of woods in the open valleys, one pair at least, frequently two, being found in each one. Nesting is well under way by the middle of April, and by the latter part of that month or the first of May these birds are incubating full sets of from seven to nine eggs, the last being actually the commoner number. The nests are invariably in knot holes in the trunks of the larger trees, varying in height from 15 to 50 feet from the ground, the cavity itself being 6 to 8 inches in depth, and usually 6 inches from the entrance. The nests are substantial matted beds of soft shreds of inner bark and rabbits' fur, with rarely a little wool, cow hair, and chicken feathers. But one brood is raised each year.

Francis H. Allen says in his notes for April 18, 1942: "My attention was called by low-pitched notes of indeterminate character. I found a pair acting in a strange manner about a bird house on the side of a tree. Besides feeding or going through the motions of picking food from the bark, they spent much of the time in wiping the bill from side to side: that is, the right side and left side of the bill alternately in rapid succession over and over for a considerable period of time in each bout. It was like the swinging of a pendulum in its regularity. The male did most of this, but the female also took part. A courtship rite was suggested, though it was not accompanied by any form of display. It was so regular and so long continued that I do not think it could have been merely for the purpose of cleaning the bill, though it may have started in that way and have been continued by imitation and as a sort of play."

William Brewster (1936) writes thus of the birds nesting in Concord, Mass.:

There is a round hole about 3½ inches in diameter 60 feet above the ground in our big elm, in which a pair of Flickers reared their brood 6 or 7 years ago. It has since been occupied at all seasons by gray squirrels. I have seen three animals enter and leave it within a week. Yet this morning about 8 o'clock a pair of White-bellied Nuthatches were building a nest there. The female did most of the work and performed it with remarkable rapidity. She would run out on a large branch, pry off a scale of bark 5 or 6 inches long, take it into the hole and almost instantly reappear and go after another. The male occasionally got one and simply poked it into the hole, without entering himself.

Of the several accounts in the literature of nuthatches breeding in bird boxes the following is an example, showing also the bird's method of obtaining rabbit fur for the lining of its nest. Lucien Harris (1927), of Atlanta, Ga., writes:

I saw a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches carrying strips of bark into the soap box. Often they would carry strips larger than themselves. They were very industrious and paid no attention to us. The birds used the bark to cover the entire floor of the box and the layer was about half an inch in thickness. They then proceeded to collect little pellets of dried earth and lumps of mud which was scattered thinly over the bark.

After this preliminary they started on the nest proper, which they placed in a back corner of the box. The nest was saucer-shaped and constructed of small twigs, grasses and rootlets.

Then, as if not quite satisfied, this unique pair discovered a dead rabbit: one that had been dead for some time—and proceeded to line the nest proper, as well as the rest of the box, with rabbit fur, so that when completed the box smelled more like a buzzard's domicile then a nuthatch's home. Brer' Rabbit's fluffy tail held a conspicuous place in the middle of the box.

The habit of taking hair from dead animals may be the birds' usual procedure, for Edward H. Forbush (1929) says: "Mr. Maurice Broun tells me that he saw one come down from a tree and hop along the ground until it reached a dead squirrel from which it plucked a bunch of hair nearly as large as its own head."

Helen Granger Whittle (1926) gives a record of a pair mated for 2 years. She says: "In the Bulletin for October, 1925, I reported a pair of Nuthatches (Sitta c. carolinensis) which had remained together a winter and a summer, and which had brought a family of young to our Peterboro [New Hampshire] station in July 1925. These parents have been under observation for another year. They have now spent at least two winters and two summers constantly in each other's company, and they have raised two families which we know about. Keeping 'tabs' on these birds has been simplified by the fact that both are banded on the left tarsus. All our other Nuthatches have been banded on the right tarsus."

Eggs: [AUTHOR'S NOTE: All the nuthatches lay large sets of eggs, and the white-breasted nuthatch is perhaps the most consistently prolific; it lays 5 to 9 or even 10 eggs to a set, but the extremes are uncommon; 8 seems to be the commonest number. In a series of 15 sets in the J. P. Norris collection there are 2 sets of 5, 1 of 6, 3 of 7, 7 of 8, and only 1 of 9.

The eggs are usually ovate or short-ovate and have very little gloss. The ground color is usually pure white but often creamy white and sometimes pinkish white. They are prettily and usually heavily marked with bright reddish brown, "ferruginous," "cinnamon-rufous," "hazel," or "vinaceous" and sometimes with a few spots of pale lavender or purplish drab. The markings are often thickest at the larger end; some eggs are evenly sprinkled over the whole surface with fine dots of pale brown.

The measurements of 40 eggs in the United States National Museum average 18.8 by 14.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 19.8 by 15.0, 17.3 by 13.0, and 18.3 by 15.2 millimeters.]

Young: The young birds when they leave the nest look very much like their parents. In Mr. Bent's nest there were "two females and three males, showing the same sex characters as the adults. They were nearly grown and fully fledged; they could not fly much, but could climb perfectly."

Dr. Arthur A. Allen (1929) states that the incubation period is 12 days and that both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young for 2 weeks after they have left the nest. He says that the young birds do not return to the cavity to sleep, but "cling upside down to the trunk of a tree beneath a projecting branch."

In Dr. Wilbur K. Butts's (1931) experience, "the male Nuthatch does not assist in incubation. He does feed the female while she is on the nest. Both sexes feed the young."

Plumages: [AUTHOR'S NOTE: All the nuthatches are peculiar in having a juvenal plumage that closely resembles the adult nuptial plumage and in which the sexes are distinguishable by the same characters as in the adult (see p1. 2). In the young male the black of the pileum and hind neck is duller than in the adult and less sharply defined against the gray back, and the edges of the greater wing coverts are more or less gray. The young female is similar, except that the pileum (front half of the crown) is deep plumbeous-gray instead of black; the hind neck is dull black. Otherwise, young birds of both sexes are much like their parents.

Dr. Dwight (1900) says that the first winter plumage is "acquired by a partial postjuvenal molt, in July, in Florida, which involves the body plumage and wing coverts, but not the remiges nor rectrices, young birds and adults becoming practically indistinguishable."

Adults have a complete postnuptial molt in July.]

Food: The nuthatch feeds on insects as well as on nuts, acorns, and other vegetable matter. Waldo L. McAtee (1926a) gives thus an excellent summary of its diet:

The White-breast has been observed to feed freely on beechnuts, to devour acorns and hickory nuts, to take maize from cribs, and to be very fond of seeds of sunflowers. These observations point to a fondness for mast which is characteristic of the nuthatch tribe. During the winter months nearly all of the food is mast, while through the spring and summer, much animal food is taken, often to the full capacity of the bird's stomach.

This is derived chiefly from the ranks of beetles, spiders, caterpillars, true bugs, and ants and other small hymenoptera. Besides these some flies, grasshoppers, moths, and millipeds are eaten. Among the Insect food items known to have a detrimental relation to the forest are nut weevils, the locust seed weevils (Spermophagus robiniae), round-headed wood borers, leaf beetles, tree hoppers, psyllids, scale insects, caterpillars, and ants. The White-breast has been observed to feed also on larvae of gall flies, eggs of plant lice and of fan cankerworms, oyster scale (Lepidosaphes ulmi), and upon larvae of the gypsy moth and forest tent caterpillars. * * *

In the long run, the White-breast, no doubt, destroys a large number of forest pests, and while not so valuable as some of the more highly insectivorous birds, still deserves protection.

The birds are fond of suet, as everyone who maintains a feeding station knows. William Brewster (1936) gives this scene of a pair caching this delicacy:

The pair of Nuthatches came regularly to the suet, oftenest in the early morning. I watched them closely for half an hour this morning [March 17, 1911]. The male was digging out pieces up to the size of a large pea and carrying them away to store them in crevices in tree trunks and behind scales of loose bark. He took them to different trees and in all directions, usually going about 100 yards. Whenever the female was with or near him, he Invariably employed her to carry off and cache the morsel. She took it from him without hesitation and flew, as he did, in various directions, chiefly to apple trees in the orchard. Curiously enough, he would not permit her to touch the main store of supply from which he was drawing. Whenever she attempted to do so, he attacked her quite viciously and drove her away. Yet the next moment he would give her the small pieces that he had just extracted.

Edward H. Forbush (1929) states: "Several ornithologists have doubted that they ever break nuts of any kind. There is credible testimony however to support the statement. Dr. C. W. Townsend says that he has twice observed the habit." Dr. Townsend (1905) continues: "On one occasion, when the bird was disturbed, it flew off with the acorn into which it had thrust its bill. Their object was probably to obtain the larvae within."

Those of us who have fed nuthatches at our window ledges and have watched them feed at arm's length have had ample proof that the birds do crack and swallow pieces of nuts. I have frequently had a bird take a bit of nut meat from my hand and swallow it, or, if it were too large, take it to the corner of the shelf, as to a cranny of bark, and split it, and I have watched a bird crack open a cherry stone.

Prof. O. A. Stevens (MS.) writes: "When they first appear in the fall, we have often fed them squash seeds, which they cache with great industry. I have at times watched an individual bird take six or seven seeds in succession in different directions, hunting for suitable places in trees, shingles, and other parts of houses."

Behavior: The white-breasted nuthatch spends most of his day hopping over the bark of the trunks and main branches of large trees, generally moving head downward toward the ground. Francis H. Allen (1912) points out an advantage in this procedure, saying: "I suspect that by approaching his prey from above he detects insects and insect-eggs in the crevices of the bark which would be hidden from another point of view. The Woodpeckers and the Creepers can take care of the rest."

Edward H. Forbush (1929) explains how the downward progress is accomplished. He says: "They seem to have taken lessons of the squirrel which runs down the tree head first, stretching out his hind feet backward and so clinging to the bark with his claws as he goes down; but the nuthatch having only two feet has to reach forward under its breast with one and back beside its tail with the other, and thus, standing on a wide base and holding safely to the bark with the three fore claws of the upper foot turned backward it hitches nimbly down the tree head first." A photograph in Bird-Lore, vol. 31, p. 424, seems to corroborate this statement. However, I once had under observation for weeks a nuthatch that had lost his entire left foot, the tarsus ending in a stump, thickened at the end, and in spite of his deformity, he was able to clamber over the branches, both large and small ones, and even to hang head downward, clinging to a small branch with his single foot.

Sometimes a nuthatch will hop down to the very base of a tree and then continue on over the ground. Here the bird looks strange enough, accustomed as we are to see it in reversed position, as leaning forward it jumps or leaps along, reminding us not a little of a frog. Edward H. Forbush (1929) tells of "a pair that spent an entire forenoon going over the chips left under a large tree from which the loose bark had been scraped. The birds picked over this material very thoroughly in their search for insects and insects' eggs.”

The tameness of the white-breasted nuthatch, or the lack of suspicion it shows toward human beings, is remarkable. With a little patience a bird may be induced to feed from our hand, especially if we are indoors and reach out through an open window to the food shelf where it is accustomed to feed. There are many such records in the literature. A striking example of trustfulness is related thus by E. M. Mead (1903), who while outdoors in Central Park, New York, fed a bird for two successive seasons: "So fearless is she that she will take food from my lips, shoulder or lap. Even an open umbrella over my head has no terrors for her. Although she manifested some annoyance at the appearance of the camera within 2 feet of us for more than an hour, during which time 12 exposures were made, still she repeated all her little tricks, not only once, but several times."

The bird displays remarkable agility in the air, on the bark of trees and small branches; it can catch a falling nut in midair, or scramble downward over the bark and overtake it, and it can hang upside down, swinging from a tiny branch. A. C. Bent (MS.) mentions a bird that ran down a swaying rope, "always head downward, and scolded me within 2 feet of my face."

Charles L. Whittle (1930) reports a banded bird known to have reached the age of 7½ years.

Wilbur K. Butts (1927), after making a careful investigation of the feeding range of marked white-breasted nuthatches, remarks: "In the course of the study it soon became apparent that each pair did not wander freely about, but had a definite, restricted, though fairly large feeding range." This accords with the experience I had with a male bird which visited my feeding shelf daily, with one short interlude, for over a year. Butts (1931) gives the following interesting summary of a subsequent study of the bird:

1. All or nearly all the individuals of the Nuthatch found at Ithaca were permanent residents. There is no evidence of any migration In this locality.

2. Each pair of Nuthatches bad a definite feeding territory throughout the year. 8. The size of the territory in the winter was about 25 or 80 acres in wooded country and apparently about 50 acres in semiwooded country. 4. They ranged over an approximately equal area during the nesting season, though it was not necessarily the same area. 5. Feeding stations had no effect on the feeding range of the Nuthatch. 6. Feeding stations should be about one-fourth of a mile apart for the Nuthatch. 7. The nest is built in or near the winter feeding territory. 8. Besides the mated pairs which have established territories there are a number of wandering birds. 9. In case of the disappearance of one member of a mated pair, its place may be taken by one of these wandering birds. 10. Nuthatches may nest in the same hole for successive seasons. 11. The large size of both winter and breeding territories is apparently not caused by inability of the birds to find sufficient food in a smaller area. They are able to obtain plenty of food quite near the nest. The feeding of the young birds is apparently not such a severe task as it is commonly supposed to be.

Francis Zirrer, of Hayward, Wis., writes (MS.) "The families stay together until about the end of November, as up to that time the old birds are still occasionally feeding the young, which at first are somewhat reluctant to come to the feeding table. Later, the old males usurp the table and chase, or try to chase, all others away. They tame readily, come to the hand for food, but know perfectly well the difference in size of the food; they will come, pick the first piece, but seeing a larger piece will pause a little, drop the first one and take the largest. If no food is on the table, they will come to the window, or visit the woodland dweller at his place in the woods, where he works at his winter supply of fuel, often a considerable distance from home; and there is usually no rest until he returns to the cabin and fills the table with a fresh supply of food. They become so used to a certain person and his call that they will, if within hearing distance, come and follow long distances through the woods. Met in the woods during the breeding season, often more than a mile away, they will come at the call and sit on the hand, head, or shoulder. Of course, it is advisable to carry something in the pockets, which one used to such things usually does. As a rule, they are quite fearless, even bold; during the nesting season of the goshawk, which nested several years a few hundred yards from the cabin, the bold little imps inspected fearlessly the limbs and trunk of the nesting tree, apparently not fearing the fierce raptores a few feet or yards away."

Voice: Most of the notes of the white-breasted nuthatch bear a decided resemblance to the human voice; they seem to be spoken or whistled. A song, for example, maybe likened to a man whistling to a dog: a regular series of about six or eight notes, sometimes more, sharply accented, striking the same pitch, each with a slight rising inflection. The pitch is commonly D next but one above middle C. When a bird is singing near at hand the voice loses some of its whistled quality and becomes full, resonant, almost mellow. The song has been variously rendered into syllables such as hah-hah-hah, tway, tway, what, what, too, too, and whoot, whoot. These renderings represent the song heard from different distances, and all of them suggest it somewhat. Occasionally the pitch of the song falls slightly at the end; sometimes the pitch undulates in slight degree; and rarely the bird crowds 20 or more rapid notes into a song of normal length.

Some years ago I had a male nuthatch under close observation where I could hear it practically every day for a full round of the seasons. The following quotation (W. M. Tyler, 1916) gives a summary of his notes:

The Nuthatch sings every month in the year; even on the coldest days of January he occasionally sings a few times in the early morning—I have heard the song when the temperature was zero; —in February songs are more frequently heard, but singing during this month is still irregular. The chief singing period is from the first of March until the last of May; during these 3 months the male sings continually. June is a month of comparative silence (I have only five records of song) in July and August songs are heard almost as infrequently as in winter, and during the last 4 months of the year singing is still rarer. In winter, singing is confined to the early morning hours—soon after sunrise—and even during the spring it is rare, before the first of April, to hear a Nuthatch sing in the afternoon. In autumn an occasional song is heard in the warmest part of the day.

In addition to his songs, our Nuthatch utters five different notes: (1) The simplest of these, and by far the most frequently used note of his vocabulary, is a high, short syllable, quietly pronounced, much aspirated, sounding like "hit." This note is given when the bird is perched and when he is in the air, both by a solitary bird and by the pair when they are together. It is both a soliloquizing and a conversational note and is associated as a rule with a calm mood. (2) The well-known ejaculation "quank," a call at certain distances remarkably suggestive of the human voice, is often employed when the bird seems excited. At such times the note is delivered with much vigor; on other occasions it is apparently used as a call between a pair of birds. This note and the "hit" are the only notes 1 have heard from the female bird. The "quank" call is very often doubled and is frequently extended into a loud, rattling chatter. As in the case of the song, the "quank" appears very much rounder, fuller and more resonant when heard near at hand. At short range it has a rolling "r" sound. (3) A low-toned “chuck" is sometimes addressed to the female. (4) On several occasions I have heard the male bird utter a growl (deep in tone for a bird) as he dashed in attack at a Sparrow. (5) A note which I have heard but rarely is a long, high whistle with a rising, followed by a falling inflection. Our word "queer" recalls the note which bears a decided resemblance to one of the Pine Grosbeak's piping calls. The note has a ventriloquial property, appearing to come from a distance when, in reality, the bird is close by. I heard this note several times in late February and early March, generally between songs in the early morning.

Francis H. Allen says in his notes for May 9, 1939: "From a pair feeding in trees I heard a note that was new to me often repeated. It was a soft, two-syllabled note that might be rendered k d??p. Sometimes I saw that it came from the female, and I never was sure that I heard it from the male. The note was at least as high-pitched as the familiar tüt, which the birds also uttered frequently. Twice I say the male feed the female. The feeding was accompanied by a faint little rapid chatter that was new to me. The k d??p note was so different from the ordinary calls of the species that I did not suspect a nuthatch as the author when I first heard it."

Field marks: The white-breasted nuthatch is a small, thick-set bird with a pearl-gray, unstreaked back, shining black crown, and black-and-white wings and tail. The side of the head is white, without an ocular stripe, and the bill is long, straight, and dark. It is the largest of our nuthatches and does not resemble the smaller species closely in plumage. Its confirmed habit of hopping downward over the bark of tree trunks distinguishes it readily from the warblers, kinglets, and other small avian frequenters of woodland.

Enemies: The white-breasted nuthatch is one of the species victimized by the cowbird, but cases are apparently rare, for Dr. Herbert Friedmann (1934) says: "I knew of three instances before; now another one has come to my attention, a set of six eggs of the nuthatch and one of the Eastern Cowbird, collected May 5, 1912, at State College, Pennsylvania, by R. C. Harlow."

R. W. Williams (1918) gives this lively description of an attack of two red-headed woodpeckers upon a nuthatch's nest and young:

Bright and happy days for the birds, old and young, ensued, until one morning before breakfast (May 9) two Red-beaded Woodpeckers arrived on the scene and inspected the box. I did not attach much significance to this and contented myself, before leaving for my office, with frightening them away by vigorous gesticulations and by small sticks thrown at them. These methods seemed to suffice for the time. Later in the day, however, I received a message that the Woodpeckers were enlarging the entrance and possessing the box, throwing out the young Nuthatches —three having already been cast to the ground —and altogether evicting the parents, which, grief-stricken, were looking on from nearby stations. The red-headed ruffians were at the box when I reached home that afternoon but they disappeared at my approach. I procured my gun and took a position from which I would be sure to reach them if they returned. I had not long to wait. One of them alighted at the entrance of the box. I fired and the bird fell to the ground directly under the box. Both of the Nuthatches flew to the base of the tree and, clinging there within a foot of the ground, regarded the Woodpecker for more than a minute, with exhibitions of keen satisfaction and exultation.

I found another of the young Nuthatches dead a few feet away from the tree. None of the young birds was mutilated to any extent, from which circumstance it seems probable that the Woodpeckers were not in quest of food, but distinctly bent on mischief.

Harold S. Peters (1936) mentions two flies, Ornithonica confluenta Say and Ornithomyja anchineuria Speiser, which have been found in the plumage of this bird.

Fall and winter: As we have seen above, no prominent migration of the white-breasted nuthatch has been noted. P. A. Taverner and B. H. Swales (1908) report from Point Pelee, Ontario, Canada:

"This species, though met with on nearly all visits, has never been very common. Usually a few scattered individuals have made the day's record. Our date of greatest abundance was October 14, 1906, when 10 were listed. * * * Our fall dates are conflicting, but seem to indicate that migrants arrive irregularly from the last of August to the middle of September."

The nuthatch, as we know him best, is an autumn and winter bird. We meet him hopping about the leafless trees, settled in some woodland, generally in the company of his mate. Here through the whole winter he remains in a domain that he has established as his winter quarters, and where he roosts in some sheltered cavity. He often appears to be alone, but if we listen we may hear his mate answering from a distance his little piglike, grunting call. Thus the pair keeps in touch, and when, drifting through the woodland, they meet and feed in close proximity, they exchange salutations back and forth with their soft, conversational hit, hit. The chickadees and creepers often join them for a time, all three species, with sometimes a downy woodpecker, searching for food in the same trees, until the more restless birds flit onward and leave the nuthatches alone again.


Range: Southern Canada to southern Mexico.

The white-breasted nuthatch ranges north to British Columbia (150-mile House) ; Alberta (Swift Current Rapids and Beaver Hills); Saskatchewan (probably Prince Albert) ; Manitoba (Lake St. Martin, Kalevala, and Winnipeg); Ontario (Sudbury and Ottawa); Quebec (Montreal); New Brunswick (Grand Falls); Prince Edward Island (North River) ; and Nova Scotia (Pictou). From this line the whitebreasted nuthatch is found in every State to the Gulf coast and south in Mexico to Veracruz (Las Vigas); Puebla (Mount Orizaba); Guerrero (Chilpancingo); and Baja California (Victoria Mountains).

The white-breasted nuthatch is not truly migratory, but apparently it sometimes withdraws in winter from the northernmost part of its range and from the higher altitudes. On the Atlantic coast it is found in some parts of the Coastal Plain more in winter than during the breeding season.

The above outline applies to the species as a whole. At least seven races are recognized within our area, and additional ones in Mexico. The southern white-breasted nuthateh (S. c. carolinensis) occupies the southeastern zone from North Carolina and Tennessee southward. The eastern white-breasted nuthatch (S. c. cookei) occurs in the northeastern part from Manitoba eastward and south to Virginia and eastern Kansas and extending to central Texas. The Rocky Mountain nuthatch (S. c. nelsoni) occurs from northern Montana to northern Mexico and from the western edge of the plains west to western Montana and Wyoming, eastern Nevada, and central Arizona. The Inyo nuthatch (S. c. tenuissima) occurs from British Columbia to northern Baja California, and from western Montana and Wyoming to the Cascades of Oregon and Washington. The slender-billed nuthatch (S. c. aculeata) occurs from the western side of the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific coast and from central Washington southward. The Mexican white-breasted nuthatch (S. c. mexicana) ranges from the Chisos Mountains of southwestern Texas through the highlands of Mexico. The San Pedro nuthatch (S. c. alexandrae) occurs in the pine belt of the Sierra San Pedro Martir, Baja California. The San Lucas nuthatch (S. c. lagunae) occurs in the Cape district of Baja California.

Casual records: A specimen is recorded to have been taken at Churchill, Manitoba, previous to 1845; the species was observed at the Forks of the Albany River, Ontario, on September 2, 1020; one was observed at Kamouraska, Quebec, on May 3, 1934, and one seen in Gaspé  County, Quebec, on July 9, 1924.

Egg dates: Arizona: 9 records, April 22 to May 28.

California: 56 records, March 21 to June 29; 28 records, April 6 to May 17, indicating the height of the season.

Colorado: 12 records, May 13 to June 25. Florida: 8 records, March 15 to June 11.

New York: 15 records, April 29 to May 30. Oregon: 9 records, April 19 to June 24.

Pennsylvania: 11 records, April 21 to May 29.

Wisconsin: 5 records, April 29 to May 11.




This southeastern race of the white-breasted nuthatch has a rather wide range in the Lower Austral Zone of coastal South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, along the Gulf coast to Louisiana, and up the Mississippi Valley to southeastern Missouri, Kentucky, and southern Illinois.

W. E. D. Scott (1890) in describing this subspecies (under the name atkinsi) gave as its characters: "Average of wing, as compared with northern birds, 0.20 in. smaller in males, 0.15 in. smaller in females. Bill relatively much longer and slenderer. Light markings of tipping of the coverts and quills of the wings decidedly narrower. A little less white in the tail. In the female birds the black of the top of the head and nape is pronounced, and it is difficult to distinguish the sexes easily, and in some cases impossible, by the color of these parts. * * * The variation in the Florida form is mainly in the direction of the western subspecies aculeata, but the bill is less attenuated; the gray of the secondaries is purer, and there are other minor differences of coloration."

He says that this nuthatch was not common around Tarpon Springs, where his type was collected. I cannot remember having ever seen a white-breasted nuthatch on any of my trips to Florida and have no reference to it in my notes, though I have traveled over the State rather extensively. A. H. Howell (1932) refers to it as "a fairly common resident in northern and middle Florida; casual in southern Florida." Apparently, it occurs in southern Florida only in winter. He says that it is "found chiefly in open pine forests, and its nests are said to be placed in pine stubs on tracts that have been cut and burned over." H. H. Bailey (1925) refers to it as a resident the year round, in northern and central Florida, "breeding sparingly."

According to Arthur T. Wayne, (1910), the range of this subspecies should be extended northward into the coast region of South Carolina. "for the birds that are resident on the coast are certainly much nearer atkinsi than typical carolinensis of the interior of the State." Breeding adult females that he collected "had the whole top of the head, as well as the nape, deep black," the well-marked character of atkinsi. He says of its haunts: "This nuthatch is by no means common and a forest of from one hundred to three hundred acres seldom contains more than three or four pairs. The birds frequent wooded land, showing a preference for mixed pine woods; but I have also found them in the largest swamps, where they are generally in pairs, never congregating in small flocks like the Brown-headed Nuthatch."

Dr. H. C. Oberholser (1938) refers to it as "an uncommon permanent resident," in Louisiana, and says: "It is an inhabitant of woodlands, orchards, and other cultivated areas, shade trees about houses, and in fact even the parks and streets of the towns and cities."

Nesting: Mr. Bailey (1925) says that, in Florida, "they prefer the natural cavities of the several species of oaks and other hard-wood trees in which to place their nest of bark-fiber, fur and hair; though occasionally they may use the old cavity of the smaller woodpeckers." S. A. Grimes has sent me several photographs of nesting sites of this nuthatch, taken in Duval County, Fla. (pls. 5, 6). One of these nests was in a natural cavity, a long, narrow slit, in the trunk of a longleaf pine; others were in dead or living pines, and one was in a cypress.

In South Carolina, Wayne (1910) remarks that the nest is hard to discover, as we all know; he found only three nests. His first nest was in an abandoned hole of the red-cockaded woodpecker, in a living pine tree 20 feet from the ground, and a set of five eggs was taken from it on March 18, 1903. He took another set of five eggs, the second set of this same pair, on April 6; this nest was in an old hole of the downy woodpecker, 35 feet from the ground in a dead pine. His third nest was in a natural cavity of a red oak, about 45 feet above the ground, from which he took another set of five eggs on March 31, 1904.

Dr. Oberholser (1938) says that, in Louisiana, "occasionally the bird excavates its own home, and it is also fond of using nesting boxes or bird houses, even close to a dwelling."

M. G. Vaiden (MS.) reports a nest that he found near Rosedale, Miss., on April 12, 1926; the nest was in a dead willow, some 8 feet up, in a natural cavity; it was "composed of feathers, some grass and decayed hair and skin of a squirrel."

Eggs: Five seems to be the usual number of eggs found in the nest of the Florida nuthatch. Perhaps more or fewer may occasionally make up a set. These are practically indistinguishable from the eggs of the northern white-breasted nuthatch, though some that I have seen are somewhat more heavily marked. The measurements of 40 eggs average 18.3 by 14.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 19.6 by 15.0, 18.7 by 15.3, 17.1 by 14.5, and 18.1 by 13.4 millimeters.

I can find nothing peculiar in any of the other habits of this nuthatch, which probably do not differ materially from those of its northern relative. Maynard (1896), however, states that the "males utter a singular song which consists of a series of low notes which partly resemble those of the Carolina Wren and partly those of the Tufted Tit. The birds when giving this odd lay appear very restless, and fly from tree to tree without pausing anywhere." This may be a courtship performance.




In the Rocky Mountain region, from southern Alberta southward into northern Mexico, and from the eastern base of the Cascades and the northern Sierra Nevada eastward across the Rocky Mountains, we find this large and well-marked race of the white-breasted nuthatches.

Dr. Mearns (1902a) describes it as the "largest known form of Sitta carolinensis. Bill large and rather stout, with contour of maxilla convex rather than straight above. Coloration dark. Under parts washed with gray and fulvous or fawn color, but less strongly so than in Sitta carolinensis mexicana Nelson and Palmer. * * * In addition to its larger size, this form may be separated from the eastern bird by its darker coloration, the back being more nearly slate color than plumbeous, and the color pattern of the tertials as in Sitta carolinensis aculeata, from which latter its larger size, stouter and differently shaped bill, and the gray and fawn color instead of pure white under parts distinguish it. In nelsoni the white of the tail-feathers is more extended than in other forms, and, excepting mexicana, the fawn color of the sides and abdomen of the young is more intense than in the remaining subspecies of Sitta carolinensis."

This is the form that we found to be fairly common in the Huachuca Mountains, in southern Arizona, up to about 7,000 feet, where we saw it occasionally and found one nest. Mr. Swarth (1904b) says that it is "resident throughout the mountains, though most abundant in the higher pine regions. During the cold weather it is quite common in the oaks along the base of the mountains, but though a few breed there, the majority of them ascend to a higher altitude in the summer.”

In New Mexico, according to Mrs. Bailey (1928), it "is found in summer mainly from 7,000 to 8,000 feet. Few species are so strictly confined as this to a definite belt of altitude." In fall it wanders sometimes below but mainly above its breeding range. In Colorado, Sclater (1912) says that it "is a common resident throughout the year, being found chiefly among the foothills and in the piñon and cedar zone in winter, and at higher elevations, nearly up to timber line, in summer, but it has been found breeding as low as 5,300 feet at Littleton near Denver." In extreme northeastern California, in the Lassen Peak region, Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) found the Rocky Mountain nuthatch resident in the "higher coniferous forests." They observed it in yellow pine, white fir, and lodgepole pine. Aretas A. Saunders (1921) says that, in western Montana, it "breeds in coniferous forests in the Transition, Canadian and Hudsonian zones, showing preference for yellow pine forests in the Transition, about the foothills of the mountains, or for white-bark pine in the Hudsonian.”

Nesting: Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) found a nest, on May 21, 1925, on the west side of Eagle Lake in the Lassen Peak region, "in a water-killed pine stub on the lake shore." They report another nest "in the stub-forest near Eagle Lake Resort. It was one and one-half meters up in an old woodpecker nest hole on the southeast side of a stump three meters high." The birds were feeding young at the time, June 12, carrying in food "at intervals sometimes as short as one minute. * * * Much of each bird's time was spent in flying into the air and catching flying insects."

Rev. P. B. Peabody (1906) published some photographs of unusually low Wyoming nests of the Rocky Mountain nuthatch; in one case, in a low, rotten stump in an open space, "the bottom of the nest was but a few inches above the ground; and the cavity but about 9 inches in height. The entrance was very irregular; and the cavity still more so. It appeared to have been made a year previous; apparently by Chickadees. The containing nest was beautifully made; and the blackish hair of which it mostly consisted made delicate contrast with the pearl-white eggs." He says that, ordinarily, "the material that surrounds the eggs is a strange conglomerate; made tip, in greater part, of disintegrated pellets ejected by birds of prey or voided by coyotes. It is most interesting to note; that this material seems to be irregularly added at all times after the first choice of the home. Material is often brought to the nest as late as mid-incubation time."

Frank C. Willard (1912) says that, in Arizona, "nine out of ten nests are in oaks, the balance usually in pines though a sycamore or madrone is occasionally selected. A natural cavity with a long narrow opening is generally elected. The nest is a mass of assorted fur and hair of various animals, skunk and squirrel fur, cow and deer hair predominating. I have also found rabbit fur and bear's hair in their nests. Enough is used to completely fill the bottom of the cavity and come up a little on the sides." He mentions a nest in a pine stub on the summit of the main ridge of the Huachuca Mountains, altitude 8,450 feet, one in an oak near the summit, and a nest in a dead stub of a sycamore in the bed of a canyon, altitude 5,200 feet. "One brood, only, is raised in a season. The same nesting site is sometimes used year after year, though vermin in the nest frequently cause them to select a new location the next season.'' The only nest that we found, while I was with him, was 18 feet from the ground in a big blackjack oak, at an elevation of about 7,000 feet in the Huachucas; it was in a natural cavity in which the base of a limb had not entirely rotted out; the bird had entered through the cracks in the rotted wood and had a fresh set of five eggs on May 12, 1922. The nest consisted of a great mass of rabbit's fur, mixed with pieces of inner bark and bits of straw.

Eggs: Mr. Willard has found as few as three heavily incubated eggs and as many as six, but apparently the set most commonly consists of five eggs. These eggs are practically indistinguishable from those of the eastern white-breasted nuthatch. What few eggs I have seen are more lightly marked, but Mr. Peabody (1906) mentions some heavily marked eggs; I infer therefore that the eggs probably show all the normal variations common to eggs of the species. The measurements of 40 eggs average 18.9 by 14.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measures 21.1 by 14.3, 20.2 by 14.8, 17.3 by 14.2, and 18.5 by 13.2 millimeters.

Behavior: In most of its habits and traits the Rocky Mountain nuthatch does not differ greatly from its eastern relative, though its voice is thinner and weaker. It does not seem to gather into flocks, as the pygmy nuthatch does, and is almost always seen singly or in pairs, though Swarth (1904b) says that "a single one may occasionally be seen in a flock of Pygmy Nuthatches or Chicadees." The members of the pair are much devoted to each other; the male feeds the female on the nest; and the pair travel about together in winter, keeping in touch with each other with their quaint calls.




The first of the western races of the white-breasted nuthatches to be described is a well-marked subspecies and is found on the Pacific slope, west of the mountains, from southern British Columbia to northern Baja California. Ridgway (1904) gives the following very good description of it: "Similar to S. c. carolinensis, but gray of back, etc., darker (about as in S. c. atkinsi); black central areas of greater wing-coverts much less distinct; black areas on inner secondaries also much less distinct, as well as more restricted, that on outer web of second tertial usually with posterior extremity acuminate-pointed instead of rounded; under parts more purely white; bill averaging longer and relatively more slender, and toes shorter; adult female with black of hindneck broken by dark gray tips to the feathers and concealed white spots."

Its haunts are in the coniferous forests of the mountains from 4,000 to 9,400 feet, among the yellow pines on mountain slopes, and in the oaks of the higher foothills. Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) say of its haunts in the Lassen Peak region: "This race of white-breasted nuthatch had its metropolis entirely within the 'blue' vegetational area, in the western end of the section; that is, the birds collected and found upon comparison to belong properly to the subspecies aculeata were all from points west of the western edge of the 'green' coniferous timber. The trees they most frequented were blue oak, valley oak, digger pine, and, along stream courses, cottonwood."

W. E. Griffee tells me that, "in western Oregon, the slender-billed nuthatches are commonest in the oak-covered foothills, but nowhere are they really abundant."

Nesting: There is nothing in the nesting habits of this nuthatch that is different from those of the other races of the species. In the Lassen Peak region, Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) found a nest in "a cavity 5 meters above the ground in a broken lower limb of a living blue oak. The tree stood near the bottom of a small ravine. The nest opening was on top of, and at the end of, a limb which extended nearly horizontally from the main trunk for at least 3 meters. The site was found by tracing the course of the male as it carried food to the female at the nest." Two other nests were found in oaks; one was "in a natural cavity below a knot hole two meters above the ground on the east side of a large, partly living blue oak"; the other "was in a cavity below a crack in a large limb of a valley oak, and it was at least fifteen meters above the ground."

In the Yosemite section, according to Grinnell and Storer (1924), the slender-billed nuthatch "ordinarily makes use of abandoned woodpecker holes for nesting sites." They found two such nests; the first "was 9 feet above the ground in an old hole of the White-headed Woodpecker in a broken off and barkless Jeffrey pine stump"; the second nest was in another old hole of the same species of woodpecker, and was 7 feet from the ground; the interior of this hole had been enlarged by the nuthatches to a diameter of over 5 inches, and was filled to within 7½ inches of the top, with deer and chipmunk hair and feathers from various birds.

W. E. Griffee writes to me of a nest that he found near Portland, Oreg., that was in a natural cavity only 3½ feet up in a small ash tree. "The bottom of the cavity, which was about 6 inches in diameter, had a heavy layer of grass and moss, and on top of that at least 2 inches of rodent fur and a few feathers."

Incubation: From the observations of the ornithologists quoted above, it seems evident that the female alone performs the duties of incubation and remains on the nest for long periods at a time. Ref erring to the second nest, mentioned above, Grinnell and Storer (1924) write:

The female was on the nest and as she refused to leave even during the hubbub incident to enlarging the entrance, the observer had to lift her from the nest in order to examine the eggs. She seemed to be in a sort of lethargy and did not struggle until actually taken in band. That the bird had not left the nest for some time was evident from the quantity of excrement which was accumulated in the cloaca. The condition of this female, the food supply which the male of the first nest had been seen to take to his nest, and the further fact that only males had been noted abroad for some days previously, led to the belief that in this species the female alone carries on the duties of incubation and that she remains upon the nest continuously for a greater or less period of time, during which she is fed by the male.

Fred Evenden writes to me that he saw a male feed its mate in the nest 18 times between 2:30 and 3:49 p. m.; the female came out of the hole only once and perched on a stub for a moment.

Eggs: The slender-billed nuthatch has been known to lay 5 to 9 eggs, but oftener 6 or 7, though sets of 8 are fairly common. The eggs probably show all the variations common to the species, but what few eggs I have seen have been sparingly marked with small dots. The measurements of 40 eggs average 18.5 by 13.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 20.0 by 13.5, 17.3 by 15.0, and 16.5 by 12.2 millimeters.

Behavior: White-breasted nuthatches are not, as a rule, gregarious; they are almost always seen singly or in pairs. But a remarkable story of communal roosting at night is told by Dr. G. V. Harvey (1902). One winter evening he saw 29 of these nuthatches coma singly to an old dead yellow pine, alight upon a knot, and vanish into a large crack in the trunk. "At no time during all the lodgment of these 29 birds, did 2 arrive at the same time, nor was there a variation in the time of the appearance of any 2 birds of more than 30 seconds." He does not state the exact time, which was probably only a few minutes before sunset, for these and other birds have a remarkable sense of time, which is almost uncanny.

This wonderful faculty is well illustrated by an observation, or series of observations, made by Dr. S. F. Blake (1928), on the regularity with which a slender-billed nuthatch went to roost under the tiles of the roof of a band stand at Palo Alto. "His hour of retiring, usually just before the sun disappeared, corresponded in a general way with the decrease in the length of day." On nine occasions, from June 29 to August 26, the time varied from 10 minutes to 25 minutes before sunset, and on only four occasions was it more than 20 minutes. "On two occasions, two nuthatches were seen together near the bandstand, but only one was ever seen to enter a tile."

Voice: The voices of the western races of the white-breasted nuthatch seem to differ somewhat from the well-known calls of our eastern bird. Ralph Hoffmann (1927) calls the note of this one "a sharp nasal keer, keer," and says further: "When two birds are working together, they utter a low quit quit. A high quer is the alarm note about the nest. In early spring and summer the male repeats a mellow too too too, like the blowing of a little trumpet; this song is generally given from a twig, an unusual perch at any other time." Grinnell and Storer (1924) describe this spring song as "a mere monotonous repetition of a certain two syllabled word: cher-wer, cher-wer, cher-wer, etc."

Dawson (1923) says that it has a variety of notes "all distinguished by a peculiar nasal quality." One he mentions, quonk, quonk, quonk, or ho-onk, ho-onk, might remind us of the call of the eastern bird; but he says that "all the notes of the Slender-billed Nuthatch have a softened and subdued character as compared with those of the eastern bird."




If the slender-billed nuthatch has a slender bill, this more recently described form from the Panamint and White Mountains of California has a much slenderer bill; hence the appropriate name tenuissima.

Although originally described from a series of 21 specimens, collected in the above-mentioned mountains, in Inyo County, Dr. Grinnell (1918) suggested that it "is likely to be found to extend north along the western rim of the Great Basin at least to Fort Klamath, Oreg." This prophecy has been partially fulfilled by A. J. van Rossem (1936) who collected 13 specimens of this nuthatch in the Sheep and Charleston Mountains in Nevada and says that it "was found in every type of coniferous timber above 8,000 feet. Until the middle of August the birds ranged up to 10,500 feet in the bristle-cone and limber-pine forests, but after the first cold weather the higher altitudes were almost deserted. On August 19, I saw but one nuthatch above 9,500 feet and on the 21st none above 9.200 feet, although on both dates they were common, chiefly in yellow pines, between 8,000 and 9,000."

Dr. Grinnell (1918) gives, as the diagnostic characters of the Inyo nuthatch: "Similar to Sitta carolinensis aculeata from west-central California, but bill much longer and slenderer, size larger, back of darker tone of gray, and flanks paler; similar to S. c. nelsoni from southern Arizona, but bill much slenderer, and sides, and lower surface generally, whiter. * * * In some respects this race is intermediate between the Rocky Mountain form and that of the Pacific coast region, but in the extreme slenderness of bill differs from either."

Nothing peculiar is mentioned about its habits.

The eggs of the Inyo nuthatch are probably similiar to those of other races of the species. J. Stuart Rowley has sent me the measurements of a set of seven eggs, which average 19.2 by 13.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 19.97 by 13.16, 19.23 by 13.68, and 18.71 by 13.88 millimeters.




Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1926) described this race and named it in honor of Miss Annie M. Alexander, who sponsored the expedition to the San Pedro Mártir region of Baja California, where this decidedly local subspecies was discovered. It seems to be confined to the Transition and Canadian Zones in the San Pedro Mártir Plateau, between latitudes 30° and 31°30’, and at altitudes of 6,000 to 8,500 feet, a very narrow range. It is widely separated from the San Lucas nuthatch by "some 600 miles of forbidding country"; and there seems to be a wide gap between it and the slender-billed nuthatch of California.

Dr. Grinnell (1926) gives as its characters: "General features of size and coloration as in Sitta carolinensis aculeata, but differs from this race in much longer wing, tail, and bill, in much broader rectrices, in greater proportion of white on rectrices, in broader white-tippings to inner primaries, and in slightly darker color-tone of dorsum." He says further: "These modifications in the flight equipment of the nuthatches of the San Pedro Mártir plateau, it may be suggested, have been developed as a result of long existence in the very open type of forest there prevalent; the individual trees are far apart as compared with the forest stands in which White-breasted Nuthatches live in Upper California. This necessitates more extensive flights from tree to tree in the usual course of foraging; and numerous studies have shown that 'sharpness' as well as length of wing and length of tail vary in direct correlation with extent of flight, whether in migration or in day-by-day foraging."




The San Lucas nuthatch was described by William Brewster (1891) as "similar to Sitta carolinensis aculeata, but with the wings and tail shorter, the black on the tips of the outer tail-feathers more restricted." These characters are slight, but constant. The race was not recognized at first by the A. O. U. Committee, but the fact that it lives in a restricted habitat, near the southern tip of Baja California, and the fact that it is separated from its nearest relative, in the San Pedro Mártir region, by some 800 miles of unsuitable terrain make it seem worthy of recognition, as an isolated race.

Of its distribution and haunts, Mr. Brewster (1902) writes: "The St. Lucas Nuthatch is probably confined to the higher mountains south of La Paz, where it was first detected by Mr. Belding in 1883. To Mr. Frazar, however, is due the credit of collecting a sufficient series of specimens to bring out the slight but nevertheless very tangible differences which distinguish it from aculeata, to which Mr. Belding very naturally referred it. Mr. Frazar met with it only on the Sierra de la Laguna, where, at all seasons, it is a rather common bird inhabiting the pine forests at high elevations."

Specimens collected by Frazar, early in May, were incubating; but he evidently found no nests; and, so far as 1 know, no one else has.



In naming and describing this form, Nelson and Palmer (1894) write: "The White-bellied Nuthatches from the mountains of south-central Mexico present certain characteristics by which they may be distinguished from either of the two recognized forms of the United States. The Mexican bird has a beak averaging rather smaller than that of Sitta carolinensis from the eastern United States. With this character it combines the color of the dorsal surface rind dark markings on tertials of S. aculeata, and differs from both northern forms in having only the chin and throat pure white: the rest of the lower parts in the present form being washed with a distinct ashy shade, heaviest on the flanks and posteriorly."

Its range was not fully known at that time, but it is now known to include the highlands of Mexico from Oaxaca to Nayarit and southern Chihuahua, north to the Chisos Mountains, Tex. Sitta carolinensis oberholseri Brandt is now regarded as a synonym of mexicana.