Nuthatches in the Piney Woods

Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent


• Louisiana Ecrevisse, Boyce, LA

Ever been out in the woods and heard a call that reminds you of a toy horn? If so, you've found a nuthatch. These are stubby, small tree climbers with square-cut, short tails and sturdy woodpecker-like bills. The bills curve slightly upwards at the tips. Once located, it's hard to miss these arboreal acrobats.

One writer described nuthatches as "upside-down-birds". Nuthatches go up tree trunks, around tree trunks and down tree trunks. They spiral around limbs. It is thought that being able to clamber down a tree trunk allows them to find food that would not be seen by birds that can only go up a tree trunk.

There are three southern piney woods nuthatches. White-breasted and Brown-headed nuthatches are native to our region while the Red-breasted Nuthatch is a winter visitor from the northern USA and southern Canada. The Red-breasted Nuthatch is intermediate in size between the larger White-breasted Nuthatch and smaller Brown-headed Nuthatch. The name "nuthatch" may originate from old English where "hatch" means "hack".

These diminutive birds are omnivorous. Besides insects and spiders, they eat small nuts. They will wedge seeds in bark crevices and then "hatch/hack" them open. All three nuthatches have bluish gray backs. Both the White-breasted and Brown-headed nuthatches have white breasts but the Red-breasted Nuthatch is a rusty orange below. The White-breasted Nuthatches have dark, black in males, crowns but pure white faces and throats.

The Brown-headed Nuthatches have brown crowns and white faces. The Red-breasted Nuthatch does have dark, blackish crowns but solid black lines through the eyes with white lines above the eyes.

All three nuthatches will be found in our southern piney woods but the Brown-headed Nuthatch is a pine specialist and restricted in distribution to the pine forests in the southern USA. The White-breasted Nuthatch occurs across southern Canada and the USA from coast to coast.

Red-breasted Nuthatches are found every winter but numbers vary from a few to many. Large numbers occur when food resources further north force more wintering birds further south.

Ornithologists call such movements "irruptions". The call of the White-breasted Nuthatch is described as a "yank-yank-yank".

Males also make a "hah-hah-hah-hah-hah-hah" call. To me, the call of the Red-breasted Nuthatch sounds like a higher pitched, louder White-breasted Nuthatch call although some describe it as an "ank". The Brown-headed Nuthatch differs from the toy horn sound of its two larger cousins generating a thin, metallic "dee-dee-dee" or "tnee-tnee-tnee". However, trying to use words to describe sounds is bit risky so readers should listen to the birds on the internet to familiarize themselves with the sounds.

The three nuthatches are not shy and if they are around, you'll know it. They readily come to feeders for sunflower seeds, peanuts, and/or suet bars. They will often make many visits to feeders to collect seeds that they take to hide (cache) in crevices in nearby trees. All three nuthatches are cavity nesters. They aren't woodpeckers but can excavate nesting cavities in decaying wood in tree branches or, in the case of Brown-headed Nuthatches, stumps. Abandoned woodpecker cavities are readily occupied and bird houses will sometimes be used for nesting. Red-breasted Nuthatches will sometimes surround the openings to thei nests with pine resin. Brown-headed Nuthatches may reduce the openings to their cavities with mud. A pair can sometimes be assisted by "helpers", usually young from previous broods.