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A species almost exclusively associated with stands of mature pines, the Brown-headed Nuthatch lives year-round in the southeastern United States. Very little post-breeding movements have been documented for this species, which often remains on territory throughout its life. Loss of habitat due to logging, forest fragmentation, and fire suppression threaten the species.
The Brown-headed and Pygmy Nuthatch are nearly identically in appearance, but have vastly different ranges with the Pygmy being confined to coastal central California. Both have short tails, large heads, and long bills on body lengths of 4.25 inches. They are smaller than the commonly occurring White-breasted Nuthatch. The Brown-headed sports a brownish cap with a large white spot on its nape; the Pygmy's cap is more grayish brown. The Brown-headed Nuthatch gives a high sharp, nasal two-syllable vocalization, often followed by a rapid series of lower nasal notes.
A characteristic bird of the pine forests of the southeastern U.S. The species historically nested as far north as southeastern Missouri but now only occurs as far north as northeastern Texas, middle Tennessee, and eastward into far southern Pennsylvania. Highest breeding densities are in western South Carolina and Georgia, central Florida, and southern Mississippi. Audubon Important Bird Areas (IBA) that support Brown-headed Nuthatch includes North Carolina's Sandhills East IBA and Sandhills West IBA.
Numbers are declining throughout its range. Breeding Bird Surveys in southeastern North America from 1966 through 2001, show a statistically significant annual population decline of 2.2 percent. Populations on Grand Bahama Island are nearly gone, probably due to extensive logging; and southern Florida has also lost substantial numbers of this species.
Almost exclusively breeds in southeastern pine forest habitats; loblolly-shortleaf pines and longleaf-slash pines appear to hold the highest numbers. The bird requires snags (standing dead trees) for nesting and roosting; but forages on live pines. It is more abundant in older pine stands compared with younger stands as well as burned stands. Nesting includes excavating cavities in trees, most commonly between February and April. Incubation lasts two weeks. Young fledge 18 to 19 days. The bird subsists on bark-dwelling cockroaches, beetles, and spiders in the warmer months and various arthropods and pine seeds when it's colder.
This non-migratory species generally does not disperse far from its breeding range; although widespread decline in pine seed crops one season may force birds to extend their range. One of few species of passerines known to use tools; the nuthatch finds loose bark flakes to pry attached flakes where insects are hiding.
The biggest problem this pine-forest specialist encounters today is the destruction of southeastern pine forests. Commercial logging as well as private and public land management practices have reduced its breeding and foraging habitat. After clear-cutting, a forest needs at least 12 to 25 years of regeneration before it can become suitable for Brown-headed Nuthatches to nest. Clear-cutting as well as fire suppression reduces the number of snags available as nesting sites. Since this bird makes limited movements away from its breeding grounds, forest fragmentation is also harmful. Birds aren't re-colonizing where suitable habitat has once again become available.
Recovery efforts for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker, a federally endangered species, may positively affect the Brown-headed Nuthatch, which shares its habitat. Forest management practices, including the reduction of clear-cuts, the introduction of fire, and the maintenance of large trees and snags can help both species. A Brown-headed Nuthatch reintroduction program is being considered at Long Pine Key in southern Florida where the species bred until the 1940s. More studies are needed to understand the bird's preference for particular pines, among other information.
What Can You Do?
Audubon's Important Bird Area program is a tool for the conservation of Brown-headed Nuthatch as well as other species. To learn more about the Important Bird Areas program in Florida, North Carolina and others states where the species is found visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/
Audubon and our partners in conservation coordinated the submission of over two million comments to the U.S. Forest Service in support of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which would protect habitat for Brown-headed Nuthatches and many other species. Unfortunately, implementation of the Rule has been stalled and attempts are being made to weaken it. To help in protecting these vital habitats visit: http://www.audubon.org/campaign/latestnews.html#roadless
U.S. National Wildlife Refuges provide essential habitat for the Brown-headed Nuthatch, and a great number of other species throughout the U.S. and its territories. Unfortunately, the refuge system is often under-funded during the U.S. government's budgeting process. To learn more about how you can help gain much needed funding for U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, visit: http://www.audubon.org/campaign/refuge_report/
Information on where Brown-headed Nuthatches occur and in what numbers is vital to conserving the species. Help in monitoring this and other species by reporting your sightings to eBird. A project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is the world's first comprehensive on-line bird monitoring program: http://www.audubon.org/bird/ebird/index.html.
Volunteers are crucial to the success of programs that monitor the long-term status of populations of Brown-headed Nuthatch and other bird species. Audubon's Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of the longest-running citizen-science monitoring programs in the world and has helped to follow changes in the numbers and distribution of Brown-headed Nuthatch. To learn more about the CBC and how you can participate, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc.
Semel, B. 2001. First Illinois Record of the Brown-headed Nuthatch. Meadowlark: A Journal of Illinois Birds. 10:122-123.
Withgott, J.H., and K.G. Smith. 1998. Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla). In The Birds of North America, No. 349 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D. C.