Brown-headed Nuthatch

Sitta pusilla

  • Version: 2.0 — Published July 26, 2013
  • Gary L. Slater, John D. Lloyd, James H. Withgott, and Kimberly G. Smith

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Brown-headed Nuthatch.
Brown-headed Nuthatch, Wekiwa Springs SP, FL, 24 November.

Brown-headed Nuthatch is distinctive within its range across the Southeastern US. It is similar only to the Pygmy Nuthatch of the West, but their ranges do not overlap. Brown-headed Nuthatches appear similar year-round except for the usual fading and bleaching caused by plumage wear. They are freshest in fall, after completing their prebasic molt. It is difficult to age birds in the field, though in-hand examination can reveal molt limits among the wing coverts of first-year birds. The following is a link to this photographer's website:

Endemic to pine forests of the southeastern United States, and rarely seen far from pine-dominated areas, the Brown-headed Nuthatch is one of the few cooperatively-breeding birds native to North America, and one of the few for which tool use has been documented (individuals use chips of pine bark to pry off other bark chips while foraging).

This nuthatch's habit of staying high in the canopy often makes it difficult to observe, but its tendency to nest lower has encouraged studies of its breeding biology. Norris's (Norris 1958b) pioneering work detailed the breeding biology of a Georgia population in the course of a comparative study with its sister species, the Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea). Many aspects of Brown-headed Nuthatch biology, including its cooperative breeding behavior and its population demography, have recently been investigated in color-marked populations, providing a wealth of information upon which to base further study.

The Brown-headed's association with pines, particularly mature pines, and its reliance on snags for nesting may make it a good indicator species for the health of southeastern pine forests, which have been extensively logged over the last century. The failure of this species to recolonize areas where populations were extirpated because of habitat change, and the near disappearance of populations on Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas (S. p. insularis), highlight the vulnerability of this species to habitat alteration by humans. Nonetheless, important conservation actions have been accomplished -- this is one of the few North American landbirds that has been successfully reintroduced to habitat it formerly occupied.

Recommended Citation

Slater, G. L., J. D. Lloyd, J. H. Withgott, and K. G. Smith (2013). Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.