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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Tiny, compact nuthatch with a chisel-like bill. Note brown cap, blue-gray back, and whitish underparts.


Tiny and compact with a short tail and a sharp bill. Note brown cap, blue-gray upperparts, and whitish underparts.


Zigzags up and down tree trunks and branches high in the canopy, squeaking like a rubber duck as it goes.


Found in pine forests of the southeastern United States, especially in mature forests with an open understory.

Juvenile Brown-headed Nuthatch

Juveniles show fresh plumage in spring and summer, paler grayish crowns, an increased brownish wash to the underparts, and filamentous feathering, especially undertail coverts. Note also the yellowish base to the lower mandible.

Formative Brown-headed Nuthatch

Formative Plumage is characterized by fresher and bluer formative back feathers and inner secondary coverts contrasting distinctly with grayer and more worn juvenile outer coverts. The retained juvenile primary coverts are brownish with little or no grayish edging, and outer primaries and rectrices are relatively worn. The base of the lower mandible can still be whitish in January.

First Alternate Brown-headed Nuthatch

By spring the retained juvenile wing and tail feathers become quite brown and abraded. In this individual the tertials and inner two greater coverts appear to be formative, creating molt limits with the remainder of the juvenile coverts and secondaries. Some back feathers appear to be brighter blue, perhaps indicating those replaced at the First Prealternate Molt.

Definitive Basic Brown-headed Nuthatch.

Wing and tail feathers are uniformly dusky with blueish edging, not contrasting distinctly in color or quality with the back feathers. The base to the lower mandible is bluish gray.

Definitive Alternate Brown-headed Nuthatch

By April. primary coverts remain in good shape and with blue edging remaining, not brownish and abraded as in Formative Plumage. It is possible that some to many back feathers may get replaced during the Definitive Prealternate Molt, appearing bluer in color than the worn basic wing coverts.

Brown-headed Nuthatch undergoing Definitive Prebasic Molt

By late June the Second and Definitive Prebasic molts can commence, beginning with the tertials and inner primaries. The basic wing and tail feathers can become quite worn by this time, but not as worn as juvenile feathers are during the Second Prebasic Molt.

Macaulay Library Photos for Brown-headed Nuthatch

Top-rated photos submitted to the Macaulay Library via eBird. Note: Our content editors have not confirmed the species identification for these photos.

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