Giant nuthatch (Sitta magna)

GenusSitta (1)
SizeHead-body length: 20 cm (2)

The giant nuthatch is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The Vulnerable giant nuthatch (Sitta magna) is a member of the Sittidae family, which comprises twenty-five species of nuthatch worldwide (3). The giant nuthatch is usually distinguished from other nuthatches by its size alone, which is alluded to by its scientific name, magna, which is Latin for ‘great’ (4).

The plumage of the giant nuthatch is characterized by dark blue upperparts and bluish-grey underparts. The underside of the tail is chestnut with white spots, the bill is black and the feet are greenish-brown. Male giant nuthatches display distinctive broad, black streaks on either side of the head, running from the bill, through the eyes, to the upper back. The females' headbands are much duller (5).

The range of the giant nuthatch spans south-west China, central and east Myanmar and north-west Thailand (6).

Dwelling in coniferous and mixed conifer and broadleaf forests at elevations between 1,000 to 2,000 metres, the giant nuthatch prefers to roost and forage in Khasi pine trees (Pinus kesiya). The deep bark of the Khasi pine supports a large numbers of insects on which the giant nuthatch feeds (7).

The giant nuthatch spends most of its time high up in trees where its highly dexterous feet allow it to move along trunks and branches with ease. It forages for insects and insect larvae, which constitute a major part of its diet, but it also feeds on any berries and nuts that it finds (8). Like most other nuthatches, it cannot excavate its own nesting cavities and so nests in natural cavities or old woodpecker nests (7).

All nuthatches are monogamous, mating for life. Courtship behaviour of the giant nuthatch begins in December, when five to eight males and females group together and forage for food as a unit. Courtship rituals involve a male following a female and offering food. If the female accepts the gift, the pair will separate from the group, mate and begin building a nest (7).

The female giant nuthatch remains in the nest while the male forages for food until the eggs are laid. The male and female then take it in turns to incubate the eggs while the other searches for food, but once the eggs hatch it is necessary for both parents to forage to provide sufficient food for the nestlings. The young giant nuthatches leave the nest at about 25 days old (7).

Numbers of the giant nuthatch in the wild are declining (1), and it has already become extinct in two areas in Thailand (6). The main threat facing giant nuthatch populations is habitat loss as a result of forest fires and deforestation. The coniferous trees the bird inhabits are sought after for fuelwood and are also cut down to make way for agriculture. The giant nuthatch is also sometimes captured for the live bird trade, although this is considered to be only a minor threat (8).

The giant nuthatch is legally protected in Thailand and Myanmar, meaning it is illegal to hunt this bird. It also occurs in a number of protected areas across its range, including Doi Khun Tan National Park in Thailand. In the Yunnan Province of China a program of activities aiming to raise awareness of this species was initiated (6) (8).

To prevent numbers of the giant nuthatch falling further, it has been recommended that additional protected areas should be established around sites supporting healthy populations. There should also be restrictions on the logging of the Khasi pine trees on which the giant nuthatch so heavily depends (6).

Learn about wildlife conservation in China:

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  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2010)
  2. Mackinnon, J. and Phillipps, K. (2000) A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Perrins, C. (2003) The Encyclopedia of Birds. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  4. The Nutty Birdwatcher (November, 2010)
  5. King, B., Woodcock, M. and Dickinson, E. (1987) A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia. Collins, London.
  6. BirdLife International (November, 2010)
  7. Charonthong, K. and Sritasuwan, N. (2009) Behaviour of the giant nuthatch (Sitta magna). Research Journal of Biological Sciences, 4(11): 1142-1147.
  8. BirdLife International (2001) Threatened Birds of Asia: the BirdLife International Red Data Book. BirdLife International, Cambridge, UK.