Nuthatches are the only North American birds that search for food much of the time by going head-first down a tree branch or trunk. It is thought that they do this to find food woodpeckers miss on their way up the trunk.
They’re looking for insects, their eggs and larvae hiding in bark crevices. In winter, they often hide seeds in these crevices, to be eaten later.
While the white-breasted nuthatch is widely distributed in all 48 contiguous states, Mexico and Canada, the brown-headed nuthatch lives only in the southeastern US.
This bird favors pine forests, often nesting in pine snags, foraging for insects on pine trees, eating seeds of pine trees, even using parts of these seeds to line its nest.
In winter, brown-headeds often roost for the night in former nest cavities, and it’s usually more than just the breeding pair that spends the night together. As many as ten have been observed crowding into one cavity — a virtual bird slumber party! It may seem cramped for space, but it enables the birds to share each other’s body heat. They all stay a lot warmer that way on cold winter nights.
Sharing a roost cavity isn’t the only way these birds cooperate. Unlike other nuthatch species, brown-headeds frequently get some help with the child-rearing, as well. Breeding pairs are aided by others, probably relatives, with territorial defense, nest excavation, nest sanitation, and feeding of the female at the nest, nestlings, and fledglings. This behavior makes nuthatch baby rearing a family affair.
Eastern bluebird populations have benefited tremendously by nest box programs begun in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, there may be more bluebirds now than ever before.
The brown-headed nuthatch could use your help in the same way.
If you live in an area with pine trees, put up a bluebird nest box with a smaller entrance hole — 1 1/8 inches in diameter is just right — and brown-headed nuthatches may nest in it. Or, maybe chickadees will, and that’s okay, too.
These two nuthatches are easily distinguished by appearance. Both have white breasts, but while the white-breasted nuthatch has a black cap, the brown-headed’s cap is … your guessed it, brown. The white-breasted is twice the size of the tiny brown-headed nuthatch.
They can also be recognized by their voices. White-breasted nuthatches have a persistent, nasal call, yank-yank-yank, while the brown-headed nuthatch sounds like a squeaky toy, saying dee-dee-dee, dee-dee-dee.
Both nuthatches are readily attracted to feeders stocked with sunflower seeds and suet. For a small investment in the purchase of these bird foods and a couple of feeders, you can draw them up close and enjoy their company year-round.
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