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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
Revision Notes

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Introduction

The Brown-headed Nuthatch is endemic to the pine forests of the southeastern United States and is rarely seen far from pine-dominated areas. It is also one of the few cooperatively-breeding birds native to North America, and one of the few for which tool use has been documented (individuals use chips of pine bark to pry off other bark chips while foraging).

This nuthatch's habit of staying high in the canopy often makes it difficult to observe, but its tendency to nest lower has encouraged studies of its breeding biology. Norris's (1) pioneering work detailed the breeding biology of a Georgia population of the Brown-headed Nuthatch as part of a comparative study with its sister species, the Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea). Many aspects of Brown-headed Nuthatch biology, including its cooperative breeding behavior and its population demography, have recently been investigated in color-marked populations, providing a wealth of information upon which to base further study.

The Brown-headed Nuthatch's association with pines, particularly mature pines, and its reliance on snags for nesting likely make it an important indicator species for the health of southeastern pine forests, which have been extensively logged over the last century. This species' failure to recolonize areas where extirpated due to habitat change highlights its vulnerability, but it is also one of the few North American landbirds that has been successfully reintroduced to the habitat it formerly occupied. The threat to the Brown-headed Nuthatch, however, is poignantly demonstrated by the possible extinction of its sister species, the Bahama Nuthatch (Sitta insularis), which had an estimated population of only 2 to 6 individuals in 2018 (2) prior to the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Dorian in 2019. The Bahama Nuthatch and Brown-headed Nuthatch were formerly considered conspecific (3), but the Bahama Nuthatch was recognized as a distinct species in 2021 (4) based, in part, on differences in vocalizations (5, 6) and responses to playback (7).

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  • Year-round
  • Migration
  • Breeding
  • Non-Breeding

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