White-Breasted Nuthatch

Sitta carolinensis

white-breasted_nuthatch_12-09-12.jpg

Photograph of a White-Breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted nuthatches, the upside-down birds, creep up and down tree trunks and on the tops and bottoms of branches. The call is a nasal “yank-yank.”
Family

Sittidae (nuthatches) in the order Passeriformes

Description

The white-breasted nuthatch’s habit of climbing upside down on tree trunks and branches makes it easy to identify. Adult upperparts are bluish gray, with a black forehead crown and nape, and white cheeks. The cap of females is gray. Adult underparts are white with buff flanks. The song is a rapid series of low-pitched nasal sounds: “whe-whe-whe-whe-whe.” The often-heard call is a nasal “yank” or “yank-yank” and is lower-pitched than that of the red-breasted nuthatch.

Similar species:

  • The red-breasted nuthatch is an uncommon winter resident in pine forests; it has rusty underparts, has a dark eye line, and is smaller.
  • The brown-headed nuthatch has a distinctively brown cap; its squeaky call sounds a lot like a rubber ducky. It was extirpated from our state around the 1940s but may soon be reappearing in the restored pine forests of southern Missouri. This nuthatch species disappeared from the state when the formerly extensive shortleaf pine forests were felled in the early years of the 20th century. The return of the pine forest habitat permits the return of the birds. The reintroduced birds will come from pine forests in Arkansas.
  • The black-and-white warbler also creeps upside-down on trees, but it is distinctly striped with black and white and has the body shape of a warbler.
Size

Length: 5¾ inches.

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch
White-Breasted Nuthatch
White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch, Kirbyville, MO
White-Breasted Nuthatch
White-Breasted Nuthatch, Kirbyville, MO

White-Breasted Nuthatch-20200401-191916.jpg

A close up of a small bird with blue feathers and a white front, holding a sunflower seed in its beak.
White-Breasted Nuthatch in Joplin, MO
Habitat and conservation

Found in mature deciduous trees, in forests, woodlands, parks, and suburban areas. The related red-breasted nuthatch prefers conifer woodlands. White-breasted nuthatches are cavity nesters that enlarge existing hollows in trees or move into abandoned woodpecker holes. Thus they require standing dead trees with wood soft enough to be excavated. This is a big reason to allow “snags” to remain standing in woods.

Foods

Nuthatches forage for insects, seeds, and berries and frequently visit bird feeders. They sometimes create caches of seeds for later consumption. They often participate in mixed-species foraging flocks in winter. They provide a good example of how each member of those flocks utilizes the forest differently. The nuthatch’s unusual foraging behavior — acrobatically creeping on all sides of trunks and branches — enables it to find food where other insectivores can’t.

image of White-Breasted Nuthatch distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Common permanent resident.

Life cycle

The female nuthatch builds the nest in an existing cavity in trees, sometimes an abandoned woodpecker hole. She lays 5–9 eggs, which are incubated for about 2 weeks. The young fledge in 26 days. There is one brood a year. Pairs remain together throughout the year, chasing other nuthatches from their territory.

Human connections

Nuthatches devour a host of insect pests of trees, such as borers, weevils, scales, and the larvae and pupae of destructive moths. They eat a variety of wild nuts and seeds, but in our backyards, they eat sunflower seeds, peanuts and peanut butter, and suet.

Ecosystem connections

Mixed-species foraging flocks can help birds in several ways. With more individuals hunting, it may increase efficiency in finding food when it is scarce. Also, there are more pairs of eyes to watch for predators, and a flock may prevent territorial birds from driving any one of them away.