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Frequent Flyer: Brown-headed nuthatch

Story by Lucy Elam  +  Photos Courtesy of Wild Birds Unlimited

A family affair

A frequent visitor to Lowcountry backyard feeders, the brown-headed nuthatch is a small, social songbird with an affinity for Southeastern pine forests. With a compact, round appearance, it’s hard to believe that these squat birds can swiftly navigate the pine trunks and branches they call home with all the finesse of a top American Ninja Warrior contestant. Brown-headed nuthatches use their strong feet to cling upright to the bark of the loblolly, shortleaf, longleaf and slash pine trees to which they are so partial. 

Nuthatches nest in cavities in standing dead trees and also will utilize nest boxes. When breeding season comes around, brown-headed nuthatches differ from most songbirds. As cooperative breeders, nuthatches are true family birds. Rather than leaving and taking on the world on their own, young males often will stick around to help their parents construct the new nest. These helpers bring food to the incubating female and even help feed the new nestlings. Members of the family group frequently preen each other, sitting side-by-side on a branch and reaching over to straighten each other’s feathers. (Gotta look good for the family photo!) 

This Brady Bunch of birds does just about everything together, calling to each other through the pine canopy with rubber-ducky squeaks as they forage, build and preen. Set up a nest box and a suet feeder, and you might just catch a glimpse of these blue-gray birds in your backyard.


Fun Facts

  • Tool use in animals is rare, but the brown-headed nuthatch sometimes uses a piece of bark as a lever to pry up other bark to look for goodies below. If it finds a particularly good piece of bark, it may even carry the bark tool from tree to tree or use it to cover up its stash of seeds.
  • The brown-headed nuthatch often joins mixed-species foraging flocks in winter. In these flocks, the nuthatch competes for food with the pine warbler, another pine specialist. These two species push each other out of the best foraging spots, but there is no clear winner; the nuthatch attacks the warbler just as frequently as the warbler attacks the nuthatch. 
  • The oldest recorded brown-headed nuthatch was at least five years and nine months old when it was recaptured during banding operations in Alabama in 1960. It had been banded in the same state in 1954. 

Where to see them 

  • Southeastern pine forests
  • Audubon Newhall Preserve

Essentials 

Find a full line of feeders, seeds and accessories for backyard bird feeding at Wild Birds Unlimited in Festival Centre at Indigo Park on Hilton Head Island. 

Accessories

Feeders

  • Tube feeder
  • Hopper feeder
  • Suet feeder

Food

  • Black-oil sunflower seeds
  • Suet
  • Mealworms