Identifying the Brown-headed Nuthatch

The Brown-headed Nuthatch is found year-round throughout mature pine forests (loblolly, shortleaf, longleaf and slash pine) in the southeastern U.S., from eastern Texas to North Carolina. They live in groups, sounding their distinct calls that people often compare to a rubber duck.

Look up - way up - and you may see them near the treetops. They may be doing their sideways hop, searching for spiders, insects and beetle larvae in the bark. As one flies over to a neighboring tree, another trails closely behind.

These small, cute birds have steel-gray backs and bodies, brown heads and wings, short necks and a long gray beak that helps them probe tree bark for insects.

Behavior of the Brown-headed Nuthatch

What makes the Brown-headed Nuthatch a delight to watch is the way they hop up and down the bark of the pine tree, zigging and zagging with knack and ease. Other birds like creepers and woodpeckers are also able to perform vertical moves on trees, but they use their tails to prop them up and assist in their movement. Not so for the Brown-headed Nuthatch, who use the strength in their feet to support their agility.

These social birds live in groups. They’ll forage together, sitting near each other in trees, preening each other’s feathers. When paired, Brown-headed Nuthatches usually mate for life. In fact, their familial ties are so close that male offspring will often stick to their parents for an extra season to help them raise the newest batch of nestlings.

In the winter, these dedicated insect-eaters switch to pine nuts, using their beaks to hammer an opening in the shell. Sometimes they’ll hide a pine seed in the tree bark to eat later, covering it with another piece of bark.

Unlike most animals, let alone other birds, the Brown-headed Nuthatch uses a tool. It sometimes carries a small piece of bark, using it as leverage to pry up larger bark on trees to look for insects, larvae and other food hiding beneath.

The Brown-headed Nuthatch is a cavity nester. They’ll excavate holes in a decaying tree, or make use of an old woodpecker hole. However, logging practices and fire suppression efforts reduce the number of available dead trees, and for that reason, the population of these birds declined 24 percent between 1966 and 2015. If you live near a wooded area, consider setting up a nesting box to support the Brown-headed Nuthatch.

During cooler months when insects and spiders aren’t as readily available, the Brown-headed Nuthatch will seek out feeders to supplement their diet. For birdseed that these nuthatches will love, try Lyric Chickadee Mix. They will relish the sunflower seeds and tree nuts available in this premium seed blend. Hang your feeder near a tree and keep an eye out for the lively bunch that will be sure to pay you a visit.

A Brown-headed Nuthatch, found in the southeastern U.S. MattCuda / iStock / Getty Images Plus.