SPRING 2002/VOLUME 16, NUMBER 2

Brown-headed Nuthatch
By TINA PHILLIPS
The Birdhouse Network's Most Wanted (Fifth in a Series)


Brown-headed Nuthatches inhabit mature pine forests of the Southeast. They usually excavate snags for nesting but will also use nest boxes in appropriate habitat.
Marianne Killackey
It's hard to believe that a tiny bird, weighing less than an ounce, created such a stir. But last November, hundreds of birders from across the Midwest came to see the single Brown-headed Nuthatch at FeederWatcher Linda Gilbert's backyard feeder in northeastern Ohio. Why all the commotion? The last time this rare visitor may have been spotted in Ohio was when naturalist Jared Kirtland reportedly collected one in 1830, more than 170 years ago.

Unlike the Red-breasted Nut-hatch, the Brown-headed is a year-round resident within its range, with long-distance movements seldom reported. Brown-headed Nuthatches are usually found only in the pine forests of the southeastern United States. They require mature forests with a fairly open understory and ample snags. They usually excavate snags for nesting but will also use abandoned woodpecker cavities and nest boxes.

U.S. Breeding Bird Survey data show that the Brown-headed Nuthatch has declined throughout its range except in scattered pockets (see map). Since 1966, significant declines have been documented in the coastal flatwoods of the Southeast, particularly in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Overall, Brown-headed Nut-hatch populations have decreased by 2 percent per year, a 45 percent decline over the last 35 years. Clear-cutting has contributed to the species' near-extirpation on Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas.

Logging and forest fragmentation have also resulted in loss of habitat on the mainland during the last century. Fire suppression may have a negative impact on Brown-headed Nuthatch populations by slowing the creation of snags and encouraging dense understory. Nesting success is also adversely affected by predators such as snakes, raccoons,

The U.S. Breeding Bird Survey (1966-1996) shows Brown-headed Nuthatch population declines, particularly in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina.
USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center

cats, and squirrels, and by competition for nesting sites with both native and nonnative cavity nesters.

Similar in appearance to the Pygmy Nuthatch, the Brown-headed Nuthatch has a dull brown crown, is smaller than the White-breasted Nuthatch, and lacks the rufous underparts and eye stripe of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. Its voice, like that of most nuthatches, is nasal and consists of high-pitched squeaky sounds.

The Brown-headed Nuthatch is one of only a few bird species in the world known to use tools. By holding a small piece of bark in its bill, the nuthatch pries open bark on trees to expose insects.

The Birdhouse Network has very little data on this resourceful little nuthatch. In an effort to increase the number of nesting records in our database and supply additional nesting sites, we encourage bird enthusiasts to provide nest boxes in areas where suitable habitat exists and to report nesting attempts. Although its habitat requirements are quite specific, the Brown-headed Nuthatch will nest in snags and nest boxes in residential areas so long as mature live pines, rich in insect fare needed during the breeding season, are also available within a few hundred feet.

We suggest providing several nest boxes because Brown-headed Nuthatches are known to start building nests in multiple cavities before eventually settling in one. Providing multiple boxes may also alleviate competition for boxes with other cavity-nesting birds. Nest boxes should be erected early in the spring to deter competition with other species and decrease the chance of predation, particularly by snakes. Studies suggest that early nesting may also help Brown-headed Nuthatches avoid nesting during the hottest parts of summer and encourage rare additional nesting attempts.

The heights of Brown-headed Nuthatch nest cavities are among the lowest reported for North American cavity-nesters - a characteristic which might make it easier for predators to destroy eggs or young. If you provide nest boxes, place them four to six feet above the ground and attach predator guards to deter climbing predators such as snakes. Holes should face away from prevailing winds because severe winds can drive rain into the box, contributing to nestling mortality. Monitor nest boxes minimally, approximately once every 7-10 days in the afternoon during favorable weather.

Habitat alteration by humans is largely responsible for the steady population decline of the Brown-headed Nuthatch. The species would benefit from large tracts of intact mature pine forest, immune to clear-cutting and fire suppression. Meanwhile, you can make habitat more favorable for these birds in your own yard by providing nest boxes. And by sending your data to The Birdhouse Network, you can help increase scientific knowledge and public awareness about this sprightly little nuthatch. Visit <www.birds.cornell.edu/birdhouse> or call (607) 254-2416 for more information.


Suggested citation: Phillips, Tina, Brown-headed Nuthatch. Birdscope, newsletter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Spring 2002. <www.birds.cornell.edu>

For permission to reprint all or part of this article, please contact Miyoko Chu, Editor, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd., Ithaca, New York. Phone (607) 254-2451. Email mcc37@cornell.edu