Brown-headed Nuthatch Sitta pusilla Scientific name definitions

Gary L. Slater, John D. Lloyd, James H. Withgott, and Kimberly G. Smith
Version: 1.1 — Published August 18, 2021

Conservation and Management

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Effects of Human Activity

Degradation Of Habitat

The southeastern pine forests in which the Brown-headed Nuthatch evolved are today substantially reduced and altered in various ways, largely by commercial logging, private and public land management practices (e.g., fire exclusion, snag removal) and development. These factors have reduced the quantity and quality of habitat for nuthatches, negatively influencing populations, and have fragmented forests, creating smaller and more isolated populations further at risk of extirpation.

Most old-growth pine forest is gone, replaced by even-aged stands of younger pines harvested on short rotations. Clear-cutting negatively affects nuthatch populations (96, 97). Clear-cutting in the early twentieth century decimated populations locally in Georgia (94) and extirpated the population in s. Florida (Robertson and Kushlan 1974). After clear-cutting, it may take 12–25 yr before trees again become suitable for nuthatches (55). However, encroachment of hardwoods and low snag abundance reduces habitat quality and poses a serious threat to long-term population stability (Wilson and Watts 1999, 43, 98).

Suppression of fire has also lowered habitat quality, by allowing the hardwood component of southeastern pine forests to flourish (99, 98). Nuthatches are less abundant in pine habitats with hardwood mid- and understories than those in which hardwoods have been removed by prescribed fire and mechanical treatments (Provencher et al. 2002a, 2002b; Conner et al. 2002).

Nuthatches require snags for nesting and their availability appears to limit populations in some situations. Management practices that remove snags from forests lower habitat quality. Fire suppression can slow the creation of snags and allow understory development, which may conceal potential cavity locations in favored short snags (Wilson and Watts 1999, Dornak et al. 2004).

As forests become further fragmented and isolated, so will nuthatch populations, posing a risk to their long-term viability (43). Because Brown-headed Nuthatches are relatively sedentary and appear to disperse short distances, they may be unable to recolonize areas when populations disappear, even if habitat again becomes suitable (Cox and Slater 2007).

Disturbance At Nest And Roost Sites

No data, but may be vulnerable to human disturbance because of low cavity height and frequent tolerance of close approach.


Conservation Status

The species was included on the list of Birds of Conservation Concern (USFWS 2008). Unlike its fellow southeastern pine forest endemics, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Bachman's Sparrow (Aimophila aestivalis), the Brown-headed Nuthatch remains common and widespread in open stands of mature pine forest in the se. U.S. The species has probably experienced less nest-site limitation than the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and may be more tolerant of fire suppression than the Bachman's Sparrow.

Measures Proposed And Taken

There is wide agreement that the prime conservation needs of this species are preservation of intact old-growth pine forest and restoration and maintenance of natural fire regimes. In absence of implementation of these practices on a wide scale, more moderate measures have been proposed or are being taken. A program of hardwood control, preservation of open stand structure by limiting pine density, long rotation ages, prescribed fire, and snag retention was proposed to benefit the Brown-headed Nuthatch (57). Slater (49) recommended conservation of old-growth pine, restoration of natural fire regimes, retention of large trees and snags (including small snags that will not be sought by larger cavity competitors), and reintroduction programs in areas that lost populations because of habitat destruction but now have suitable regrowth.

The Brown-headed Nuthatch appears to benefit from recovery efforts for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker that are being implemented on many public lands (54. Management for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers focuses on mechanical removal and short burn rotations to reduce midstory hardwood encroachment and maintain open-canopied forests, all of which benefit nuthatches (Conner et al. 2002; Provencher et al. 2002a, 2002b). However, caution is warranted as nuthatches have disappeared from areas where Red-cockaded Woodpeckers once occurred; in central Florida, Cox et al. (2012) found nuthatches absent in areas occupied by Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.

Snags should be a primary target of habitat management for nuthatches. Nuthatch abundance is associated with snag abundance (Wilson and Watts 1999). Snag density, particularly of large snags, is also associated with increased productivity (Lloyd and Slater 2007) and nesting success (Sullivan 2011). Snag retention should reduce competition for nest sites and reduce nest predation. Lloyd and Slater (2007) recommend the continued use of prescribed fire as a management tool for snag creation and retention, but suggest greater attention be given to the trade-off between the length of the fire-return interval and the recruitment of new snags and retention of existing snags. Short intervals (1-3 yr) should be considered in areas with dense hardwoods understories, but longer fire return intervals (5-6 yr) should be considered in some stands to optimize the balance between snag creation and snag consumption (Lloyd et al. 2009).

Movement away from clear-cutting as a forest management practice may prove beneficial. Clear-cutting and shelterwood harvest methods are predicted to greatly lower population sizes in late-rotational pine-hardwood forests in Arkansas, whereas group-selection and single-tree-selection cuts may only slightly decrease populations (100). However, suitability of clear-cuts depends heavily on snag presence; if snags are left standing in clear-cuts adjacent to mature pine forest, nuthatches may forage in forest and nest in clear-cuts (JHW).

Management of small isolated populations may require special attention due to their vulnerability (Cox and Slater). For example, prescribed burns should not occur during the nesting season because they destroy nests and shift renesting to periods later in the breeding season, which are less successful (Lloyd and Slater 2007).

This nuthatch occurs on golf courses, city parks, and other suburban habitats where mature seed-bearing trees and cavities are present (Stanback et al 2011, Thompson 2000, GLS). These areas provide habitat for the species and their value should not be ignored. For example, over 4,000 golf courses occur in the southeast and many mimic the aspects of pine savannahs with low tree density and open understory. Management should focus on using nestboxes with reduced hole size to provide nesting opportunities and eliminate competition with Eastern Bluebirds (Stanback et al. 2011).

The Brown-headed Nuthatch is one of the few landbird species in North America that has been successfully reintroduced to replace an extirpated population (Lloyd et al. 2009). Forty-seven nuthatches were released into Long Pine Key in Everglades National Park over a 4-yr period (Slater 2001), and the founder population exhibited similar reproduction and survival rates as a high quality reference population (Slater 2004). Post-translocation monitoring indicated the population expanded throughout the area and generally exhibited a positive growth rate (Lloyd et al 2009). The most recent survey in 2009 indicated population size was approximately 100 individuals with a distribution across the reintroduction area.

Effectiveness Of Measures

Few data, but management programs that maintain snags and those (for Red-cockaded Woodpecker recovery) that include prescribed burning to remove hardwood understory and longer rotation ages benefit Brown-headed Nuthatches (54, Conner et al. 2002, Provencher et al 2002a, 2002b).

Reintroduction is a feasible strategy for this species in areas where restored habitats are suitable for nuthatches and source populations are not close by.

Recommended Citation

Slater, G. L., J. D. Lloyd, J. H. Withgott, and K. G. Smith (2021). Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla), version 1.1. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.bnhnut.01.1