BioKIDS home

Kids' Inquiry of Diverse Species

brown-headed nuthatch

Sitta pusilla

What do they look like?

Male and female brown-headed nuthatches have a similar size and color. Juveniles also share a similar coloring and size. From their crown to their tail, they are 105 to 110 mm long and weigh an average of 10.8 g as adults. They also have an average wingspan of 16 to 18 cm. The top of their head is dull brown and the back of their neck has a whitish spot. Their back, wings, rump and tail are blue gray with darker, slate colored flight feathers and steering feathers with white markings. Brown-headed nuthatches are dull white from their chin to their undertail. They also have black bars crossing through their eyes and black irises. Their long, thin beaks are black and pointed, which helps them use bark as a tool to pry food from trees. (Tacutu, et al., 2012; Withgott, et al., 2013)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Average mass
    10.8 g
    0.38 oz
  • Range length
    105 to 110 mm
    4.13 to 4.33 in
  • Average length
    107 mm
    4.21 in

Where do they live?

Brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) are found in the southeastern United States, as far north as Virginia, as far west as Texas and as far south as southern Florida. There is also a small population of brown-headed nuthatches found on the Grand Bahama Islands. (Haney, 1981; Phillips, 2002)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Brown-headed nuthatches are usually found in open mature pine forests that have a thin understory. These birds do very well in areas that are maintained using prescribed burns (burning of specific natural areas by forestry professionals) because it keeps the understory open and creates areas for nesting. Brown-headed nuthatches nest by making holes in pine trees or by using empty woodpecker holes or birdhouses. These birds are mostly found below 700 m in elevation. (Haney, 1981; Pennock, 1890; Phillips, 2002)

  • Other Habitat Features
  • urban
  • Range elevation
    250 to 700 m
    820.21 to 2296.59 ft

How do they reproduce?

Although we do not know how they choose a mate, once a mate is chosen, they usually stay paired for the season and sometimes for life. The males choose a nesting cavity and then, partnering with the female, they begin digging. Taking turns for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, the male and female chip away a hole for their chosen nest. They may start and leave several nests before settling on one. Brown-headed nuthatches are a cooperative breeding species, so in addition to the breeding male and female, there are 1 to 3 helper birds. These birds help with nest building, feeding and nest defense. (Barbour and DeGange, 1982; Cox and Slater, 2007; Haney, 1981)

Brown-headed nuthatches are cooperative breeding birds, meaning they rear their young in groups of 2 to 5 adult birds. The group includes the parents and the non-breeding "helper" birds, which help with nest building, defense, preening and feeding. Brown-headed nuthatches start building nests in February. Their nests are mostly found in dead trees, birdhouses or empty woodpecker holes. They often return to the same nest each year, however, when they build a new nest it is usually within 100 meters of the old nest. Good nest sites include trees with hard exteriors and soft interiors. The nest opening is usually less than 2.5 cm in diameter. The nest itself is at least 30 cm deep and less than 3 meters from the ground. The inside is filled with hair, decayed wood and shredded cocoons. The eggs vary in shape and color and can be laid from March to July. Generally 4 to 8 eggs are laid per brood. Females incubate and guard the eggs, while males bring food and nest materials as needed. This takes around 14 days. Once the young hatch, they stay in the nest and are cared for by the adults for another 17 to 19 days. If a nest fails, the breeding pair will not re-nest that season. Instead, they might help another breeding pair with their nest. (Cox and Slater, 2007; Haney, 1981; Pennock, 1890; Tacutu, et al., 2012)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Brown-headed nuthatches breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Their breeding season lasts from March to July.
  • Range eggs per season
    4 to 8
  • Average eggs per season
    5
  • Average time to hatching
    14 days
  • Range fledging age
    17 to 19 days
  • Range time to independence
    17 to 19 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1 years

Brown-headed nuthatches start building their nests between February and April. They start and abandon several nests before choosing a nest to use. After the eggs are laid, the female stays in the nest to incubate the eggs, which lasts about 14 days. She guards the eggs and keeps them warm, while the male and helpers bring her food and more nest lining if needed. Once the eggs hatch, nestlings are dependent on both parents and the helpers for food and protection from predators. Nestlings fledge around 18 to 19 days after hatching but remain dependent on their parents for food for about 32 days. Even after food independence, they stay close to their parents for an unknown amount of time. (Withgott, et al., 2013)

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

How long do they live?

Brown-headed nuthatches have an average lifespan of 8 years in the wild; the longest recorded lifespan for the species was 9 years. In captivity the maximum-recorded lifespan is 6 years. (Tacutu, et al., 2012; Withgott, et al., 2013)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    9 (high) years
  • Range lifespan
    Status: captivity
    6 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    8 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    5.8 years

How do they behave?

Brown-headed nuthatches are a social species, during the breeding season, they travel in small single-species flocks of 4 to 5 birds and during the non-breeding season, they travel in multi-species flocks of 8 to 20 birds. In the multi-species flocks, they travel with Carolina chickadees, downy woodpeckers, brown creepers, golden-crowned kinglets, tufted titmice and pine warblers. Among these species, the only birds they compete with are pine warblers. They normally feed in different parts of the pines, but their territories may overlap. Brown-headed nuthatches are very territorial and beat out pine warblers when they compete. They also have a social habit called allopreening, where they preen other birds of the same species. This may help them stay clean, form relationships and possibly reduce stress and aggression. Brown-headed nuthatches are the only species in family Sittidae that are known to use tools. They pry off a loose piece of bark and use it as a wedge to pry off more difficult pieces of bark. When they have finished prying bark, they drop the wedge and look for insects. They are also known to wedge a seed into a bark depression and hammer it with their beaks until the seed cracks. (Slater, 2001; Barbour and DeGange, 1982; Cox, 2012; Haney, 1981; Morse, 1967; Morse, 1968)

  • Range territory size
    .003 to .476 km^2
  • Average territory size
    .071 km^2

Home Range

The home range of brown-headed nuthatches varies from 0.3 to 47.6 hectares, with an average territory size of 7.1 hectares. (Stanton, 2013)

How do they communicate with each other?

Brown-headed nuthatches are able to make a 'cheeping' sound within one day of hatching. This sound can be heard for up to 15 m and is probably used to gain the attention of their parents. Adults use several sounds for long distance communication, close communication and warnings between mates. Their main call is a 2-syllable sound, which sounds like a squeaky rubber ducky, 'tyah-dah or chee-da'. Their 'cheep' sound can be more or less insistent depending on how excited they are; it is the only call that is heard for long distances and is most likely used for distance communication. They also make soft, low chirps that are only heard when they are close together. This is often used when the birds forage or they approach a nest. When they sense danger, brown-headed nuthatches make sharp, single-note alarm calls. (Haney, 1981; Withgott, et al., 2013)

What do they eat?

In the warmer months, brown-headed nuthatches mostly eat insects such as cockroaches, grasshoppers, moths, beetles, ants and spiders. They also eat beetle larvae, insect egg cases and sunflower seeds. When food is too big to eat, they carry it to another location and hammer it until it is ready to eat. In the colder months when insects are scarce, they eat pine seeds and break open pinecones to reach the seeds. These birds are known to store seeds by hiding them underneath flakes of bark on trunks or limbs of pines. (Haney, 1981; Phillips, 2002; Withgott, et al., 2013)

  • Animal Foods
  • eggs
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Since their nests are found so close to the ground, brown-headed nuthatches are often preyed on by snakes and other animals such as raccoons, domestic cats, squirrels and larger birds. They have no real defense against predators, but to protect their eggs and hatchlings females guard their nest constantly. (Phillips, 2002)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Brown-headed nuthatches are parasitized by nematodes and protozoan blood parasites. (Collins, et al., 1966; Love, et al., 1953; Sherman, 1979; Wehr and Hwang, 1957)

Species (or larger taxonomic groups) used as hosts by this species
  • None
Species (or larger taxonomic groups) that are mutualists with this species
  • None
Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host
  • nematodes (Oxyspirura pusillae)
  • protozoan blood parasites (Haemoproteus)
  • protozoan blood parasites (Plasmodium)

Do they cause problems?

There are no known negative effects of brown-headed nuthatches on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Brown-headed nuthatches do not have a direct impact on humans. However, their presence can help determine the health of pine ecosystems in the southeastern United States. (Lloyd, et al., 2009)

  • Ways that people benefit from these animals:
  • research and education

Are they endangered?

Brown-headed nuthatches are currently considered a species of "least concern" on the IUCN Red list and of "no special status" on the CITES appendices. These birds are losing their habitats in places like Georgia, Florida and South Carolina due to clear-cutting, logging and forest fragmentation, as well as fire suppression. If they do not have regular prescribed burns in their habitat, the understory will over-grow and they will leave. (Phillips, 2002)

Contributors

Nikohl Miller (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Leila Siciliano Martina (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.

References

Barbour, B., A. DeGange. 1982. Reciprocal allopreening in the brown-headed nuthatch. The Auk, 99/1: 171.

Collins, W., G. Jeffery, J. Skinner, A. Harrison, F. Arnold. 1966. Blood parasites of birds at Wateree, South Carolina. The Journal of Parasitology, 52/4: 671-673.

Cox, J. 2012. Social grooming in the Brown-headed Nuthatch may have expanded functions. Southeastern Naturalist, 11/4: 771-774.

Cox, J., G. Slater. 2007. Cooperative breeding in the brown-headed nuthatch. Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 119/1: 1-8.

Dornak, L., B. Burt, D. Coble, R. Conner. 2004. Relationships between habitat and snag characteristics and the reproductive success of the brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) in eastern Texas. Southeastern Naturalist, 3/4: 683-694.

Haney, J. 1981. The distribution and life history of the brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) in Tennessee. The Migrant, 52/4: 77-86. Accessed July 11, 2013 at http://www.tnbirds.org/MigrantOnline/V052/V052077-086.pdf.

Herb Jr, A., B. Burt. 2000. Influence of habitat use-patterns on cooperative breeding in the brown-headed nuthatch. Texas Ornithological Society, 33/3: 25-36.

Lloyd, J., G. Slater. 2007. Environmental factors affecting productivity of brown-headed nuthatches. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 71/6: 1968-1975.

Lloyd, J., G. Slater, S. Snow. 2009. Demography of reintroduced eastern bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches. Journal of Wildlife Management, 73/6: 955-964.

Love, G., S. Wilkin, M. Goodwin. 1953. Incidence of blood parasites in birds collected in southwestern Georgia. The Journal of Parasitology, 39/1: 52-57.

Morse, D. 1967. Foraging relationships of Brown-Headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers. Ecology, 48/1: 94-103.

Morse, D. 1968. The use of tools by brown-headed nuthatches. The Wilson Bulletin, 80/2: 220-224.

Pennock, C. 1890. Notes on breeding habits of brown-headed nuthatch at Thomasville, Georgia. The Ornithologists' and Oologists' Semi-Annual, 2/1: 29-31.

Phillips, T. 2002. Brown-headed nuthatch. Birdscope, 16/2: None. Accessed July 09, 2013 at http://www.birds.cornell.edu/Publications/Birdscope/Spring2002/nuthatch.html.

Sherman, I. 1979. Biochemistry of plasmodium (malarial parasites). Microbiological Reviews, 43/4: 453.

Slater, G. 2001. "Avian Restoration in Everglades National Park (1997-2001): Translocation, Methodology, Population, Demography, and Evaluating Success" (On-line pdf). Accessed November 29, 2013 at http://www.ecoinst.org/files/Slater_2001_Avian_restoration_PhaseII_Final.pdf.

Stanton, R. 2013. "Habitat selection of brown-headed nuthatches at multiple spatial scales" (On-line pdf). Accessed December 17, 2013 at https://mospace.umsystem.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10355/38390/research.pdf?sequence=2.

Tacutu, R., T. Craig, A. Budovsky, D. Wuttke, G. Lehmann, D. Taranukha, V. Costa Fraifeld, J. de Magalhaes, V. Fraifeld, J. de Magalhaes. 2012. "AnAge entry for Sitta pusilla" (On-line). Human Ageing Genomic Resources. Accessed July 07, 2013 at http://genomics.senescence.info/species/entry.php?species=Sitta_pusilla.

Wehr, E., J. Hwang. 1957. Oxyspirura (Yorkeispirura) pusillae n. sp. (Nematoda: Thelaziidae) from the orbital cavity of the brown-headed nuthatch, Sitta pusilla Latham, 1790. The Journal of Parasitology, 43/4: 436-439.

Wilson, M., B. Watts. 1999. Response of brown-headed nuthatches to thinning of pine plantations. The Wilson Bulletin, 111/1: 56-60.

Withgott, J., K. Smith, G. Slater, J. Lloyd. 2013. Brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla). The Bird of North America, 349: None. Accessed August 16, 2013 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/349/articles/introduction.

 
University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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

Miller, N. 2014. "Sitta pusilla" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed February 25, 2018 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Sitta_pusilla/

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 © 2002-2018, The Regents of the University of Michigan. All rights reserved.

University of Michigan