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


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Habitat in Breeding Range

Occurs almost exclusively in association with pine (Pinus) trees, in a wide variety of southeastern pine forest habitats. Southeastern pine forests consist of 11 species of pine (43); the most extensive forests are the loblolly-shortleaf (P. taedaP. echinata) pine association of the Upper Coastal Plain and the longleaf-slash (P. palustrisP. elliottii) pine association of the Lower Coastal Plain (47). These 2 principal forest types are among those with highest abundances of Brown-headed Nuthatch (34).

Species is most common in open, mature, old-growth pine forest, particularly where natural fire patterns have been maintained. Less frequently but regularly found in stands of young or medium-aged pine, in mixed pine-hardwood stands, and in mature pine stands with heavy undergrowth. Breeding Bird Census data show presence in >50% of mature loblolly-shortleaf and longleaf-slash stands, presence in minority of intermediate loblolly-shortleaf stands and young loblolly-shortleaf and oak-hickory (Quercus-Carya) stands, and absence in intermediate and mature hardwood stands (48). Also may occur in residential areas, particularly parks and neighborhoods with large pines rising from open areas. More detailed descriptions of habitat use may be found in Hamel (34).

Brown-headed Nuthatches typically require snags (standing dead trees) for nesting and roosting. Foraging, however, centers on live pines. This combination of vegetation characteristics occurs in (1) mature pine forest in which fire has kept understory open and created snags, (2) small clearings created either naturally (e.g., by hurricanes, disease, or bark beetles) or artificially (e.g., by clear-cutting) in which snags have been left standing, or (3) forest-wetland ecotones where snags are created by water incursion. Most southeastern pine-dominated ecosystems are fire-dependent (47), and many coastal-plain pine forest and pine savanna areas abut wetlands. In Florida, will nest in cypress (Taxodium distichum) swamps and prairies adjoining pine woodland (22, 49). May breed in residential areas if snags, nest boxes, or other artificial nests -- as well as mature living pines -- are available (Herb and Burt 2000, Stanback et al. 2011).

Clearly more abundant in older pine stands than in younger ones (50, 51, 52, 53). In south Florida, more abundant in old-growth slash pine forest, with regular fire (every 3-7 yr) than in previously logged, but mature, even-aged pine forest with developed understory from combination of fire exclusion and winter prescribed burns (Slater 2007). In central Florida, however, more abundant in young flatwoods (dominated by slash pine – saw palmetto) that did not support Red-cockaded Woodpeckers (RCW) than mature sandhill forests dominated by longleaf pine – wiregrass that did support Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Cox et al. in press). Nuthatches missing from many conservation areas in peninsular Florida that are dominated by sandhill forests (Kale et al. 1992).

Also more abundant in pine stands where hardwood mid- and understory are reduced via mechanical treatment or fire (54, Conner et al. 2002, Provencher et al. 2002a). In Texas, presence of this species is related positively to large, mature pines and negatively to development of understory vegetation (55); it prefers intermediate-aged stands if they contain more grassy openings and decayed wood than older stands (56). In e. North Carolina, nuthatches occur in loblolly plantations (13-35 yr old) following thinning, which reduced canopy cover and density of hardwoods (Wilson and Watts 1999).

For foraging, found to use more open stands with less basal area, fewer hardwoods, and less canopy closure (57).

See also Breeding: nest site, and Food habits: feeding, below.

Habitat in Nonbreeding Range

Habitat in Migration

Not migratory.

Habitat in Overwintering Range

Habitat use and suitability similar to those of breeding season (34). In Georgia, greater use of pine-dominated areas over mixed and deciduous areas in relation to availability was found at residential sites but not at undeveloped sites (58). In natural areas in Louisiana, birds foraging in mixed flocks spent <1% of time in deciduous growth, whereas 4 other species in the same flocks spent 45–90% of the time in deciduous growth (59). Here nuthatches were found in 98.2% of mixed-species flocks in pine forest, in 3.8% of flocks in mixed habitat, and in no flocks in deciduous forest habitat (60).

Root (36: 176) reported highest early winter concentrations “in the swamp forest of the Mississippi River near the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana.” Although large numbers of nuthatches have been reported on Christmas Bird Counts in upland pine forests of s. Arkansas along the Ouachita River (61), rarely, if ever, do they occur in bottomland hardwoods along the Mississippi River (also, Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge is not in Louisiana, but in Arkansas).

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