White-Breasted Nuthatch

Sitta carolinensis
Family

Sittidae (nuthatches) in the order Passeriformes

Description

This bird’s habit of climbing upside down on tree trunks and branches easily marks it as a nuthatch. 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 call is a nasal “yank” or “yank-yank” and is lower-pitched than 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. Although the black-and-white warbler also creeps upside-down on trees, it is distinctly striped with black and white.

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
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.