BioKIDS home

Kids' Inquiry of Diverse Species

white-breasted nuthatch

Sitta carolinensis

What do they look like?

White-breasted nuthatches are small birds that can often be spotted climbing up and down the trunks of trees. Their long bills make them easy to identify. Their bills are nearly as long as their heads and are curved slightly upward. White-breasted nuthatches have black crowns on their heads, with white cheeks and white undersides. Their belies have a slightly pinkish region towards the tail. A nuthatch's back is bluish-gray. Their wings and tails are a mixture of white, black, and bluish-gray. Males tend to be slightly more brightly colored than females, with the dark parts of their plumage being very dark and contrasting with their light plumage. Females are more grayish overall. Very little research has been done on these birds but we know that they weigh about 20 g and are about 15 cm long. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • male more colorful
  • Average mass
    20 g
    0.70 oz
  • Average mass
    20.5 g
    0.72 oz
  • Average length
    15 cm
    5.91 in

Where do they live?

White-breasted nuthatches reside throughout most of North America, including the continental United States, southern regions of Canada, and central Mexico. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

What kind of habitat do they need?

White-breasted nuthatches live in deciduous woodlands and mixed deciduous and coniferous forests. They prefer, older, more mature hardwood forests and may require the presence of oak trees. White-breasted nuthatches are also common visitors to backyard birdfeeders. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

How do they reproduce?

White-breasted nuthatches are monogamous (one male mates with one female). They form breeding pairs that that stay together year-round for years until one of the pair dies or disappears. Males sing a breeding song and do courtship feeding to try to attract a mate. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

Most white-breasted nuthatches breed between early May and early June, but some populations start as early as April and end as late as July. White-breasted nuthatches raise one brood per year. The female white-breasted nuthatches build their nests alone. The nests are built in cavities 3 to 18 meters above the ground. The female usually lays 6 to 8 pinkish-white eggs. She then incubates the eggs for 12 to 14 days, and the male brings food to her. After hatching, the nestlings stay in the nest for 26 days. After fledging, the chicks remain near their parents for several weeks. Both parents feed and protect them during this time. These young nuthatches then leave their parent's territory to establish their own territories. They are able to breed the next spring. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    White-breasted nuthatches breed once per year.
  • Breeding season
    The dates of nest-building, egg-laying, hatching, and young leaving the nest vary from region to region. Most breeding is done between early May and early June.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 10
  • Average eggs per season
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    12 to 14 days
  • Average fledging age
    26 days
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 to 1 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 to 1 years

The female builds the nest and incubates the eggs. Once the eggs have hatched, both parents feed and protect the young. Males tend to do most of the parental care in the first few days after hatching, but as the young become more independent, both parents share the job equally. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

  • Parental Investment
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

The estimated average lifespan of a white-breasted nuthatch is 2 years. The oldest known white-breasted nuthatch lived almost 10 years. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    10 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    2 years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    118 months
    Bird Banding Laboratory

How do they behave?

White-breasted nuthatches are excellent at climbing up and down the sides of trees. They can be easily identified by their habit of creeping up and down tree trunks. They search for food this way, looking for insects that are hidden in crevices and under the bark along tree trunks and branches. They also sometimes search for food on the ground, hopping around rather than walking.

Nuthatches do not migrate. They defend a territory all year. The size of the territory depends on the type of habitat. Wooded territories are smaller than non-wooded territories. The territory is dominated by the male, but both sexes live together within the territory. Nuthatch pairs may leave their territory in winter when food becomes scarce. They often spend time at bird feeders or join flocks with chickadees and titmice. White-breasted nuthatches are diurnal (active during the day). (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

  • Range territory size
    0.1 to 0.2 km^2

Home Range

In this species, the home range is the same as the territory. Typical territories in wooded habitats are 0.10 to 0.15 square kilometers. Territories in semi-wooded areas are about 0.2 square kilometers. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

How do they communicate with each other?

White-breasted nuthatches communicate using songs and body signals. They are usually quiet during the summer and during their breeding season. They sing and call most during the very early spring and the winter. White-breasted nuthatches sing several different songs, each consisting of several notes. Most of their songs are used to defend their territory. Scientists have counted 13 different calls made by white-breasted nuthatches. Each call has a different purpose. White-breasted nuthatches also have very good eye sight. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

What do they eat?

Nuthatches get their name from their habit of placing large seeds and nuts into crevices of trees and then prying them open with their bills. They also used their bill to probe crevices along tree trunks and limbs for smaller seeds and insects. They store extra seeds in loose bark or crevices to eat later. The amount of seeds and insects that white-breasted nuthatches eat changes with the seasons. In the summer, white-breasted nuthatches eat only insects. In the winter and early spring, when there are not many insects available, white-breasted nuthatches eat more seeds. The insects that white-breasted nuthatches eat include weevils, tent caterpillars, ants, scale insects, psyllids, wood borers, and leaf beetles. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Predators of adults are most likely hawks and owls. Nestlings and eggs are eaten by woodpeckers, small squirrels, and climbing snakes, such as smooth green snakes. White-breasted nuthatches respond to predators near their nest by pecking and flicking their wings while making "hn-hn" noises. They also use a piece of fur or vegetation to wipe around their nest opening when they leave the nest. This covers up their scent and keeps squirrels and other predators from using smell to find their nests. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

White-breasted nuthatches help to control insect populations in the summer. They also disperse the seeds of many plants. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds

Do they cause problems?

We do not know of any way that white-breasted nuthatches negatively affect humans.

How do they interact with us?

White-breasted nuthatches eat insects that some humans consider to be pests. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • controls pest population

Are they endangered?

White-breasted nuthatches are common throughout most of North America. There are about 10,000,000 white-breasted nuthatches, and it seems that their population is slowly increasing. This species is protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.

One problem facing this species is the removal of dead trees from forests. Dead trees provide many of the cavities that white-breasted nuthatches need for their nests. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)

Some more information...

White-breasted nuthatches are pretty common birds, but little is known about their biology. This is because they prefer to nest in natural holes in large, dead trees, where it is difficult to observe them. (Pravosudov and Grubb, 1993)


Tanya Dewey (author), Animal Diversity Web.

Kari Kirschbaum (editor), Animal Diversity Web.

Jennifer Roof (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


Pravosudov, V., T. Grubb. 1993. White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). Pp. 1-16 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 54. Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

BioKIDS home  |  Questions?  |  Animal Diversity Web  |  Cybertracker Tools

Roof, J. 1999. "Sitta carolinensis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed April 21, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
Copyright © 2002-2024, The Regents of the University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

University of Michigan