Once you learn to identify the white-breasted nuthatch, they are hard to miss. Their yapping, nasal calls carry through the trees, and they bound head-first down tree trunks, always on a mission to find goodies behind the bark. These sweet birds are common in deciduous forests across the country, and are familiar faces at backyard feeders. Let’s learn some interesting facts about the white-breasted nuthatch.
1. White-breasted Nuthatches are black, white and rusty
The white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) has a striking appearance with its slate colored back, white underparts, and white face. They have a dark band at the back of their neck that rises up over the head all the way to the beak in a thick stripe, like wearing a hood. Their short tail and sharply pointed beak give them a long and slim silhouette. A rusty patch is hidden on their their rump, but can sometimes extend up their lower sides.
2. White-breasted Nuthatches are exceptional climbers
Nuthatches are excellent climbers. Their strong toes with long claws help them grip bark. They spend much of their time quickly creeping up and down tree trunks and large branches. When traveling down a tree trunk they go head-first, unlike most other birds. A typical stance to see them in is gripping a tree facing downwards with their head lifted, like the above photo. You’ll often see them use this same stance at bird feeders with mesh for clinging.
3. Males and Females Only Look Slightly Different
There is very little visible difference between the male and female white-breasted Nuthatch. To tell them apart, look at the color of their caps / head stripe. Female have a dark gray, dusty cap while male’s cap is solidly black.
4. White-breasted Nuthatches song isn’t very musical
Males are the only ones that sing, but their song doesn’t sound very musical. It is a low-pitched, somewhat nasal wha-wha-wha note repeated several times in a row. They can sing the notes at a normal pace or faster pace, and the fast pace is associated with attracting mates. I sometimes think it sounds like laughing, ha-ha-ha-ha.
5. White-breasted Nuthatches aren’t migratory
This species is a year-round resident across most of the United States, from east coast to west coast. There are some areas where they aren’t found, like right along the Gulf coast, southern Florida, and certain desert or high elevation areas of the west. Overall they are a very widespread species that extend into both Canada and Mexico.
6. There are at least nine subspecies separated by geographical location
There are slight changes in appearance and call sounds that occur at different locations, giving rise to subspecies. There are generally nine separate subspecies recognized that come from three main areas – eastern North America, Central Mexico and the Great Basin, and the Pacific coast. They are still recognizable as white-breasted nuthatches with only slight variations. For example the eastern subspecies have a thicker bill and cap than those in the middle of the country or the west coast.
7. White-breasted Nuthatches are the largest of the North American nuthatches
There are three other nuthatch species in North America, the red-breasted nuthatch, brown-headed nuthatch and pygmy nuthatch. They all inhabit slightly different habitat niches. The white-breasted Nuthatch is largest, measuring about 5.1 – 5.5 inches long with a wingspan of 7.9 – 10.6 inches.
8. White-breasted Nuthatches prefer deciduous forest habitat
These nuthatches need wooded habitat such as mature forests, forest edges or even parks and suburban neighborhoods with large trees. They prefer forests with predominantly deciduous trees rather than conifer forests, which are preferred by their cousin the red-breasted nuthatch.
9. Insects and Seeds Make Up the White-breasted Nuthatches Diet
These little birds consume an abundance of insects, including wood-boring beetle larvae, tree hoppers, weevil larvae, ants, caterpillars, stinkbugs, beetles and spiders. Insects are their main diet during the spring and summer months. In the fall and winter, they turn more to nuts and seeds, and readily visit bird feeders where they enjoy sunflower seeds, peanut pieces and suet. Up to 70% of their winter diet can be seeds if insects are hard to find.
10. Unique Way of Feeding
White-breasted nuthatches have a feeding behavior called “hitching.” They start at the top of a tree, head pointed down, and move downward searching for insects hidden in the crevices of the bark. They can use their long, pointed beak to really get into bark crevices and even to chip away small pieces. But they don’t only move down tree trunks, they will hop up, down, sideways, and move about the trunk with ease.
11. Their name comes from their nut cracking ability
As a group, nuthatches got their name because they do, in fact, “hatch” nuts. They will grab a large seed or nut, carry it to a tree, jam it between two pieces of bark to secure it, then hammer it open with their beak.
This is a different technique than birds like cardinals that can remove a shell in their mouth, or birds like chickadees that hold the seed between their feet while they remove the shell.
12. White-breasted Nuthatches are cavity nesters
These birds choose natural tree cavities (which often occur in dead trees) or abandoned woodpecker holes for nesting. However, they also show adaptability by using birdhouses or nest boxes made by humans. While they can’t carve out their own nest cavity like a woodpecker, they may sometimes enlarge a hole that is close to the size they want. Old woodpecker holes are an important resource, and they seem to be fine using just about any size they can find, even very large ones.
13. They Like The Buddy-System At Bird Feeders
It has been observed that White-breasted nuthatches are more likely to visit an exposed bird feeder if they are accompanied by other small birds, like chickadees and titmice. This may be because chickadees and titmice are vocal in sounding an alarm if they spot trouble nearby. These three birds often join together in small flocks during the non-breeding season. Researchers even showed through an experiment that when titmice were removed from the flock, the white-breasted nuthatch was less willing to visit exposed bird feeders.
14. White-breasted Nuthatches store seeds
If you watch your feeder you will often see them grab a seed and immediately fly away. They may be bringing it to a tree to crack it open. But they may also be storing it for later. White-breasted nuthatches like to take seeds and wedge them tightly behind pieces of bark, storing them for a later date. This is extra insurance during the winter when food can be harder to find.
15. Mating And Nesting Rituals
During courtship displays, males bow, spread their tail and drop their wings while swaying. They may also gather food and feed it to the female as part of bonding. Once an appropriate nest hole is found, the female lines it with fine grasses, fur and shredding bark. 5-9 speckled eggs are laid per clutch, and the female will incubate them for about two weeks while the male brings her food. Once hatched, both parents will bring food to the chicks. Chicks will leave the nest at 25-26 days.
16. They try to throw predators off their scent
To ward off predators, these clever birds apply substances like sap or mud to the entrance of their nests. Scientists believe they do this to remove or mask their natural odor so as not to give their location away to predators.
17. Both sexes make calls
While males are the only ones that sing, both males and females make a variety of calls. Their calls are low pitched and nasal sounding, consisting of repeating a yank note several times in a row. It can sound a bit like bleating or laughing. Contact calls between the male and female are giving most often in the fall and winter. Nuthatches in general tend to be vocal birds, and once you learn what they sound like you’ll notice them gabbing away while on hikes or in wooded backyards.
18. Male and female white-breasted nuthatches stay together during the winter
Even outside of the breeding season, a white-breasted nuthatch pair tends to stay together. They remain territorial throughout the year. If you see one nuthatch in a mixed flock group during the winter, search close by as there is a good chance there mate is there too.
19. In certain cases, white-breasted nuthatches may change their location in times of food shortage
Although they are generally not migratory, certain populations may migrate in response to changes in food availability or extreme weather conditions.
- “White-breasted Nuthatch”, JMC Nature Photos, All About Birds, allaboutbirds.org
- “White-breasted Nuthatch”, American Bird Conservancy, abcbirds.org
- “White-breasted Nuthatch”, National Audubon Society, audubon.org
- “Fun Facts About Nuthatches”, Wild Birds Unlimited, richland.wbu.com
Amanda has a love for beekeeping and all things related to nature. She is also a small business owner, crafting various goods using the honey and beeswax harvested from her hives. Amanda resides in the tranquil mountains of West Virginia where she shares her home with her husband and beloved feline companions.