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

Sounds and Vocal Behavior

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Within 1 d of hatching, young can give pseep calls, up to 16/20 s. Nestling begging calls are audible at distances up to 15 m (1).

Vocal Array

Distinctions between songs and calls are unclear in this species because most vocalizations are given in variety of circumstances. Norris (1) draws distinctions based on behavioral context, but such distinctions seem subjective and not based on actual differences in sound. We will refrain from using the terminology of “song” and “call.” Below we arrange vocalizations into 4 main types, according to auditory similarity, and cautiously speculate as to possible function of each type. More research is needed to determine the functional significance of different vocalizations.

Rubber Ducky Vocalization (RDV). In its most basic form, a high-pitched, squeaky, wheezy 2-syllable sound, tyah-dah or chee-da, which sounds strikingly like a toy rubber duck being squeezed and released (Figure 3A). The number of syllables following the initial syllable is highly variable: 1–12 or more; 1–3 most common. Initial syllable is more complex than the following ones (see Figure 3A), and also the most emphatic, particularly when bird is excited. Occasionally, may continue these vocalizations for some minutes, reaching tempos of up to 80/min (1). A variation on the standard RDV features the initial syllable (usually of only 2 syllables) especially emphatic, slightly drawn-out, and inflected upward: whee!-ja .

Gives RDV in wide range of circumstances; may serve many functions. The only vocalization that carries an appreciable distance, it may enable long-distance communication between mates or flock members. Frequently, RDV elicits a response from another bird. Also given repeatedly and emphatically at times of excitement, such as when multiple birds squabble. May also be given by individuals that have become separated from a flock (60). Loud repeated series of 2-note RDVs given by males in spring were interpreted by Norris (1) as song, and he associated the whee!-ja variant (in his words, “ swee'u-hur ”) with excitement and long-distance communication.

Serial Vocalization. Rapid series of notes, softer than RDV, but often more emphatic (Figure 3B). Notes vary considerably in timbre and pitch, ranging from high-pitched light and musical twitter to a gargling jumble we term Chortle-Chatter to a dry and low-pitched chatter. Occasionally dry, low-pitched chatters are abbreviated as single syllables or brief sets of syllables such as chut, chu-dut, etc. Each vocalization may last up to 2 s; vocalizations sometimes may be repeated for several minutes.

Most often given when birds are fairly close together, either during times of apparent excitement or during normal foraging. Soft twittering often occurs when males bring food to females at or away from nest site, or on other occasions when pair of birds is at nest site; sometimes accompanied by wing-quivering. Norris (1: 181) describes a particular flight call (“a soft, slurred ‘roll,' de ur ur ur ”), which may be equivalent to our Chortle-Chatter. On one occasion an aggressor in a fight repeatedly gave Chortle-Chatter (JHW; see Behavior: agonistic behavior, below).

Single-Note Vocalizations. Extremely soft single notes such as tip, pik, tut, or dep (Figure 3C). Given frequently while birds are foraging, often continuously for extended periods of time and at rates up to 60–90/min. Notes are soft, but often the best way for a human to find groups of nuthatches foraging is to walk through appropriate habitat listening for these notes. Also, gives a sharp, single note alarm call.

While these vocalizations probably function to allow birds to keep in contact with one another while foraging, individuals have also been observed to give these notes while foraging alone, as well as in nonforaging contexts (JHW).

Vocalization. A soft, thin, airy, and harsh schweee, schweee, schweee, . . .; each syllable lasts roughly 0.7 s. Given by birds soliciting food from a mate, either when mate approaches with food or when receiving bird approaches mate. Accompanied by wing-quivering.

The first 3 vocalization types may be produced by either sex, but it is not known whether the Schweee Vocalization is produced by both sexes, although both sexes do quiver wings.

Geographic variation. There is no clear evidence of geographic variation in vocalizations.


Gives Rubber Ducky and Single-Note vocalizations year-round. May give Serial Vocalizations at any time of year, although twittering seems more common during breeding season. Gives Schweee Vocalization primarily in breeding season. Males in Georgia gave what Norris (1) interpreted as song, early Mar to early to mid-May.

Daily Pattern

Rubber Ducky and Serial vocalizations seem most frequent in early and midmorning, somewhat frequent toward dusk, and least frequent in afternoon. Single-Note Vocalizations given throughout day (JHW). What Norris (1) interpreted as song was given throughout day but not at dawn.

Places Of Vocalizing

May give Rubber Ducky and Serial vocalizations during foraging or at other times. Birds may briefly halt foraging and right themselves before vocalizing or may vocalize while foraging. Gives Single-Note Vocalizations most often while foraging. May utter all vocalizations from any position in a tree, and at nest. In addition, it is not unusual for birds to utter any of these vocalizations during flight, though Norris (1) described a particular flight call (see above). Whereas twitters often at nest site, may give Schweee Vocalizations from any position in a tree.

Repertoire And Delivery Of Songs

Extent to which individuals vary in vocal repertoire is unknown. However, most or all individuals can produce Rubber Ducky, Serial, and Single-Note vocalizations (JHW).

Nonvocal Sounds

When hammering food items at hammering sites on limbs (see Food habits: feeding, above), blows occur at irregular intervals, often <0.5 s. Blows made while excavating nest and roost holes are also of irregular tempo and sometimes at short intervals. The sound of excavation blows may carry surprisingly far for such a small bird.

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