White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)

Also known as: Carolina nuthatch, common nuthatch, devil downhead, Florida nuthatch, Inyo nuthatch, Rocky Mountain nuthatch, tree-mouse, white-breasted American nuthatch, white-breasted black-capped nuthatch
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilySittidae
GenusSitta (1)
SizeLength: 13 - 15.5 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 20 - 27 cm (2)
Weight18 - 30 g (2)
Top facts

The white-breasted nuthatch is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The largest nuthatch in North America (2), the white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is still a relatively small bird (2) (4), with a proportionately large head and almost no neck (2).

The name ‘nuthatch’ is actually a corruption of the word ‘nuthack’ (5), which stems from this species’ tendency to wedge seeds into crevices and hack them open with its bill (2) (4). The bill of the white-breasted nuthatch is the largest among American nuthatches, being nearly as long as the head, and is well adapted for probing and pounding (4). Grey-black or black in colour (3), the bill is long, narrow and chisel-like (2) (5), and is either straight or slightly upturned (2) (3) (4) (6).

The clean markings of the white-breasted nuthatch give it a rather appealing look. As its name suggests, the white-breasted nuthatch has whitish underparts (2) (3) (4) (5) (6), as well as a frosty white face (2) (6) (7). In contrast, the upperparts of the white-breasted nuthatch are a light bluish-grey (2) (3) (4) (7), while the belly is faintly tinged with buff (3) (6) or chestnut (2) (7). This species has a very short, stubby tail (2) (4) (5) with white corners which are visible in flight (4).

The male white-breasted nuthatch has a striking black cap on the head which is much duller and greyer in the female (3) (4) (5) (6) (7). Similarly, the upperparts of the female of this species are also paler and duller than in the male, and the female has a duller face (3) (4). The juvenile white-breasted nuthatch is similar in appearance to the adult, but a little paler and duller (3) (4) (6).

A very vocal species (5), the white-breasted nuthatch is known for its characteristic, nasal ‘quank’ call (3) (4) (6). It also produces a range of other calls, including a ‘chrr’ noise (3) (4). The song of the white-breasted nuthatch is rather simple, with the male performing a regular series of six to eight notes (4).

Currently, 11 different subspecies of white-breasted nuthatch are recognised, and these are split into 3 separate ‘call groups’, with each being found in a different geographic area and having a distinctive call (4).

The white-breasted nuthatch has a wide distribution in North America. This species is found in wooded areas across southern Canada, ranging from southern British Columbia to Prince Edward Island and the Maritime Provinces, and south into the United States. In the U.S., the white-breasted nuthatch occurs in New York State, South Dakota, Washington State, Wyoming and Oregon, southwards to western Texas and northern Florida, and as far as southern Baja California and southern Oaxaca, Mexico (4).

Notably, the white-breasted nuthatch is absent from certain parts of the treeless Great Plains, including northern Montana and southern Texas to west-central Nebraska (4).

The white-breasted nuthatch is non-migratory throughout much of its range (3) (4) (5), but some of the northern and western populations are thought to show migratory movements in the winter (3) (4).

The white-breasted nuthatch generally inhabits open, mature deciduous forest (2) (3) (4) (6), including maple, hickory and oak (2) (3), and is typically found on woodland edges (2) (4). However, this species can also be found in mixed deciduous and coniferous forests, as well as residential areas (4), orchards (3) (6), parks and yards (2).

The white-breasted nuthatch also inhabits riparian habitats (3) (4), and in the south-eastern parts of its range, it sometimes breeds in pine (3) (7) and oak-pine (3).

A key feature of the white-breasted nuthatch’s habitat is the presence of old or rotten trees with holes suitable for nesting (3).

In British Columbia, the white-breasted nuthatch has been reported to breed at elevations of 300 to 1,300 metres, while in southern Oaxaca, Mexico, it inhabits montane woodlands at elevations of 1,500 to 3,500 metres (4). In the more eastern parts of its range, the white-breasted nuthatch generally favours lowland areas (3).

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).

Although the white-breasted nuthatch is not globally threatened (2) (3), certain forestry practices could potentially cause a decline in its numbers. For instance, the removal of old, dead trees could reduce nuthatch densities by eliminating vital cavity sites for nesting (2) (4).

There are currently no known conservation measures targeted specifically at the white-breasted nuthatch. However, it has been suggested that studies of forest management practices in relation to this species would be useful (4). As a species which depends on old and dead trees in which to nest, the white-breasted nuthatch would benefit from practices which leave trees with natural cavities and old woodpecker holes standing (2) (4).

Further research into the breeding ecology of the white-breasted nuthatch has also been recommended (4).

Find out more about the white-breasted nuthatch and other bird species:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - White-breasted nuthatch (July, 2012)
    http://allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-breasted_Nuthatch/id
  3. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D.A. (2008) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 13: Penduline Tits to Shrikes. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  4. Pravosudov, V.V. and Grubb Jr, T.C. (2008) White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/054
  5. Eastman, J.A. (1997) Birds of Forest, Yard, and Thicket. Stackpole Books, Pennsylvania.
  6. Harrap, S. (2010) Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers. A&C Black Publishing, London.
  7. Turcotte, W.H. and Watts, D.L. (1999) Birds of Mississippi. University Press of Mississippi, Mississippi.