The white-breasted nuthatch is an active and agile bird and, like other nuthatch species, it forages head downwards (2) (4), usually starting at the top of a tree and spiralling its way down (5). Unlike woodpeckers, which rely on their stiff tails to keep them anchored to a tree, the white-breasted nuthatch uses the long, claw-like hind toe on each foot to grip onto a branch or tree trunk (5).
In the summer, the diet of the white-breasted nuthatch consists largely of insects and spiders (3) (5), including ants, caterpillars, weevils and other beetles (2) (4) (5). The white-breasted nuthatch forages intensively along large branches and down tree trunks (4), gleaning food items from the bark (3).
In the autumn and winter, the white-breasted nuthatch switches to a more vegetarian diet (3), with acorns, corn, pine nuts and other seeds constituting 70 percent of its food intake (5). The white-breasted nuthatch stores large quantities of this food in bark furrows or crevices in trees (3) (4) (5), using each storage site only once (4). In this way, food is dispersed across its territory, a practice known as ‘scatterhoarding’ (4). The precious food stores are often covered up with bark flakes or lichen (2) (3) (4).
The white-breasted nuthatch uses crevices to hold fast large seeds and nuts, which it breaks open with its sharp bill (2) (4) (5).
Although noisy and conspicuous from late summer to early spring, the white-breasted nuthatch becomes very quiet and inconspicuous during the breeding season (4) (5) (6). The onset of the breeding season for this species is rather early (3) (6), with nesting generally taking place between April and June (4). However, the timing of breeding depends on the location, and in Oklahoma breeding starts as early as late February (3).
The white-breasted nuthatch is thought to be a monogamous species (4), and pairs for life (3). In general, white-breasted nuthatch pairs remain in the same territory year-round (2) (4) (5). Any invaders of the territory are seen off through pecking, accompanied with rapid ‘hn-hn’ sounds and wing-flicking (2) (4).
The white-breasted nuthatch nests in natural cavities within old, large trees (2) (4) (6) (7), showing a preference for deciduous trees (3) (6). This species often reuses the same site year after year (2) (4), and sometimes even makes use of woodpecker holes (2) (3) (4) (6) (7). The female white-breasted nuthatch builds the nest (2) (3) (4) (6), laying down a foundation of bark, lumps of dirt, twigs and leaves (2) (3) (6). Softer materials such as fur, wool, feathers and fine grass are then used to build a nest cup (2) (3) (4) (6).
Only one brood per season is produced (2) (4) (6), which usually consists of between five and nine eggs (2) (3) (6). The eggs are creamy-white to white, speckled with light red, reddish-brown or purplish spots (2) (3) (4), and are smooth with little gloss (4). The female white-breasted nuthatch incubates the eggs while the male provides food (3) (4) (6). Incubation lasts between 12 and 14 days (2) (4) (6), after which time the helpless, slightly downy chicks hatch (2). Both adults feed the young (3) (4), which fledge at 18 to 26 days old (3) (6). The fledged young then stay with the adults for several weeks before dispersing (4).