Nuthatch

Last updated: October 17, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© iStock.com/M. Leonard Photography

Nuthatches spend a lot of their time upside down.

Nuthatch Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Passeriformes
Family
Sittadae
Genus
Sitta

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Nuthatch Conservation Status


Nuthatch Facts

Prey
Insects, snails, other invertebrates
Main Prey
Insects
Name Of Young
chicks
Group Behavior
  • Colonial Nesting
  • Pair
Fun Fact
Nuthatches spend a lot of their time upside down.
Biggest Threat
Habitat destruction
Most Distinctive Feature
Hopping up and down trees to forage, often upside down.
Distinctive Feature
Long, pointy beaks
Incubation Period
12 - 18 days
Age Of Fledgling
21 - 27 days
Predators
Hawks, owls, squirrels
Diet
Omnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
  • Colony
  • Pair
Favorite Food
Insects
Special Features
Long, pointed beak; short legs; characteristic foraging behavior
Number Of Species
28
Nesting Location
Cavities in trees or rocks

Nuthatch Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Red
  • Blue
  • Black
  • White
Skin Type
Feathers
Lifespan
2 to 3.5 years, but sometimes up to 10 years
Weight
10 g to about 45 g
Length
From about 4 to 7 inches
Age of Sexual Maturity
1 year
Venomous
No
Aggression
High

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Nuthatches spend a lot of their time upside down!

You may have seen a nuthatch foraging for food up and down the trunk of a tree. They look like some sort of tiny woodpecker, with their long, sharply pointed beaks and the way they peck against the bark of trees. It’s usually easy to tell the difference, though. These little birds are just as comfortable foraging upside down as they are right side up.

Whereas woodpeckers and treecreepers use their long tails for balance, nuthatches have short tails. They use their incredibly strong feet and claws to hold onto tree bark, rocks or artificial surfaces, and use quick little hops to move up, down, or in any direction as they search for insects and other invertebrates or stuff tasty seeds, nuts and berries in crevices for later consumption.

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Incredible Nuthatch Facts

  • Twenty-eight species of nuthatches have been identified around the world.
  • Nuthatches spend a considerable amount of time upside down, foraging for insects as they hop up and down trees.
  • People often mistake nuthatches for woodpeckers because of their long, pointed beaks and their foraging behavior.
  • Some species of nuthatches are endangered.
  • Some of these birds range over most of a continent, while others have very small habitats.
  • Nuthatches come in a variety of colors, including gray, black, white, brown, red, and even blue.

Where to Find Nuthatches

Nuthatches can be found throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere. They are commonly found in wooded areas in North America, Europe, Asia and even into northern Africa. They are often seen around human populations, frequenting bird feeders and foraging on the trunks of trees.

Most nuthatches do not migrate, and individuals tend to stay in the same small area all year. Backyard birders, however, may insist that they are more numerous in the winter. This could be because many other songbirds do migrate, leaving birds like nuthatches, chickadees, cardinals and certain sparrows a free run at feeders. And of course, in colder months when seeds and berries are less available, those feeders become a more important source of food for birds.

Nuthatch Scientific Name

All nuthatches belong to the same genus, Sitta, which was described by Linnaeus in 1758. A total of 28 species have been described, with dozens of subspecies. Sitta canadensis, or the red-breasted nuthatch, was the first to be added to the taxonomic record by Linnaeus in 1766. Sitta ledanti, the Algerian nuthatch, was added most recently in 1976.

Nuthatch Appearance

brown-headed nuthatch perched by flowers on small branch
The brown-headed nuthatch averages around four inches in length.

©iStock.com/MattCuda

Caps, masks, stripes, and a variety of colors. That’s one way to describe the appearance of nuthatches. There is remarkable variation from species to species. Some of these birds have dark or even shiny black caps on the tops of their heads. Some have dark masks, or eye lines, with or without a striking white eyebrow-like supercilium.

North American Nuthatches

The two most common nuthatches in North America have similar body shapes and sizes. They both have black beaks that are long and pointed. They both have short legs, short tails and are primarily gray in color. But they are easy to differentiate if you know what to look for.

The white-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis, has a gray back with black markings and white breast and face. It has a black hood like cap that extends from the forehead to the back of the neck.

The red-breasted nuthatch, Sitta canadensis, a red breast a bit less vibrant than that of the American robin, a white throat, black eyeline, a wide white supercilium and black cap. It looks similar to the Eurasian nuthatch, Sitta europea, found across Europe, except that the Eurasian nuthatch has black markings on the wings and lacks the white supercilium and black cap.

Variations Around the World

Nuthatches around the world vary widely in colors and patterns, although they share the following characteristics: long and pointed beaks, short legs with strong feet and claws, short tails, and compact bodies. Some species stand out, with colorations that really set them apart. For instance, the white-tailed nuthatch, Sitta himalayensis, native to the Himalayas, is gray and red with a prominent black eyeline that extends to its neck and a small white spot on its tail.

The velvet-fronted nuthatch, Sitta frontalis, found in southeast Asia from Nepal and India to Indonesia, is perhaps the biggest outlier among the various species. It has vibrant blue feathers on its back with black markings on the wings and a small black cap just above its beak. Its underside is pure white. It has bright yellow eyes, and its beak is red instead of the usual black. It is shaped like other nuthatches, but otherwise shares little in appearance with most of the genus.

Nuthatch Behavior

Most nuthatch species make their homes in wooded areas. They make their nests in cavities in trees, often using holes that either formed naturally or were made by woodpeckers. To help protect the nest, the industrious birds will decrease the size of the opening to the cavity, packing it with mud, sap, and even insect parts.

In cold weather, large groups of these small birds are known to roost together inside a single tree cavity. Up to 167 Pygmy nuthatches have been observed in a colonial roost. Although the birds use this strategy quite effectively to conserve energy and stay warm, it can be deadly. Researchers have found a number of dead birds in these communal roosts, possibly crushed or suffocated.

The Western rock nuthatch, found from Croatia to Iran, and the Eastern rock nuthatch, found from Turkey to Kazakhstan south of the Caspian Sea, differ from other species. They make their homes in crevices, holes or overhangs in rocks. They also tend to close in the opening of their nesting sites with mud, feathers, feces or other material, leaving a hole just large enough to go in and out.     

One of the most interesting behaviors of the nuthatch is the way it moves up and down a tree, rock or other surface. They are often mistaken as cute, tiny woodpeckers, thanks to their long, sharp beaks and the way they peck at trees. But woodpeckers tend to stay upright, using their tails to help stabilize their bodies as they forage. Nuthatches seem comfortable foraging in any orientation and spend a considerable amount of their time upside down. They use their strong feet to hop around, up and down a tree trunk or other surface in any direction they choose.

Diet

Nuthatches do all that hopping and pecking up and down trees because that’s where they find one of their favorite foods. Insects or other invertebrates living in and under the bark of a tree are a staple of their diet. Their long, sharp beaks are perfect for pecking through or lifting bark to get at a hearty meal.

These birds also eat grains, berries, and of course, nuts. In fact, that is how they got their name. They cram nuts into tight crevices in a tree’s bark, then use their sharp beaks to break open the hard shells and hatch the edible portion from inside. They also use crevices in the bark of trees to store extra seeds, berries and other food for later consumption.

Many nuthatches live closely with humans, and they may be found at feeders, especially in the winter. Because most Sitta species do not migrate, they can be spotted year-round. In North America, it is common to see white-breasted nuthatches and similarly colored chickadees together at feeders throughout the winter.  

Nuthatch Reproduction

Nuthatches are monogamous birds that usually breed in the spring. They typically have one or two broods per year, depending on the species. The brood size can vary widely. Some species can have up to 13 eggs, although 5 to 9 is more common. The incubation time varies, taking an average of 12 to 18 days, and fledglings leave the nest around 21 to 27 days after hatching.

Male and female nuthatches look similar to one another. In most species there are small differences that can be spotted by experienced birders, but usually not the striking differences seen in songbirds that are sexually dimorphic. Juveniles usually look similar to their parents.

The age of molting can vary, not only between species but among individuals of the same species. Most of these birds are not migratory, and the juveniles are not driven to disperse far from home. They reach sexual maturity around their first spring, when they mate and have broods of their own.

Predators

Nuthatches are at risk of predation from owls, hawks, and perhaps surprisingly, squirrels. The same tree cavities these birds use for nesting are prime real estate for squirrels, and they can be fierce competitors. They are equally aggressive, though, in defending their nests.

An example of the defensive behavior of white-breasted nuthatches was recorded in 1942 by an observer in Albany, New York. A pair of these birds, male and female, were confronted at their nest by a squirrel. Although they were considerably smaller than their foe, they raised their feathers to appear larger and vibrated their wings, perhaps to stun or confuse their adversary. A single peck from one of the birds was then enough to convince the squirrel to look elsewhere for shelter.

Lifespan of the Nuthatch

The average lifespan of a nuthatch is somewhere between 2 and 3.5 years, but some species have had individuals recorded over 10 years of age. Predators are a common threat to nuthatches, but so are things like deforestation, severe weather and wildfires. Some of these threats can be mitigated by changes in human behavior.

Nuthatch Species at Risk

Although many nuthatch species have stable populations or are increasing in numbers, there are a few that are at particular risk. Most have a limited range and have suffered substantial habitat loss due to deforestation. Some are now endangered.

The Algerian nuthatch, Sitta ledanti, is endangered with an estimated population of fewer than 2000 birds. It exists in only a small region of Algeria.

The endangered giant nuthatch, Sitta magna, is the largest of all the species in the Sitta genus and lives only in a small region of Myanmar. Deforestation is an issue affecting multiple species in this country.

The white-browed nuthatch, Sitta victoriae, also of Myanmar, was recently listed as endangered with a declining population estimated at between 2,500 and 9,999 mature individuals.

The Bahama nuthatch, Sitta insularis, found only on Grand Bahama Island, is critically endangered with an estimated population of fewer than 50 birds. As recently as 2004, the population was estimated at 1800, but recent hurricanes have all but wiped out the species.

Similar Animals

  • Chickadee – Chickadees are small birds with markings similar to nuthatches. They are often seen in the same location or around the same feeders.
  • Treecreepers – These small birds are shaped much like nuthatches, but with a longer tail that they use for balancing on trees.
  • Brown creeper – This treecreeper, also known as the American treecreeper, a range with red-breasted and white breasted nuthatches.

View all 58 animals that start with N

About the Author

Tavia discovered she had a gift for teaching when she was 21 years old. Having recently changed her major from engineering to wildlife biology, she was thrilled to take on an internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She began her work excited about going into the field and saving endangered species, but soon realized she could make the biggest difference by helping to educate young people about animals, the environment and science in general. Tavia loves all animals, especially the ones that need our help the most. Over the years, she has cared for many pets, including snakes, toads, a tarantula, tree frogs, a salamander, hissing cockroaches, mice, donkeys, calves, horses, and a number of cats and dogs, but dogs are definitely her favorite! She believes that together, we can make our world a better place.

Nuthatch FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What does the nuthatch look like?

Nuthatches are small birds with sharp, pointed beaks, short legs with powerful feel and claws, and short tails. They come in a variety of colors, from simple gray and white with black markings to browns, reds and even vibrant blue.

How many varieties of nuthatches exist?

Twenty-eight species of nuthatches have been officially described, with dozens of subspecies.

What does “nuthatch” mean?

Nuthatches were named for their practice of shoving nuts into crevices in tree bark or rocks and using their sharp beaks to crack them open, or hatch them so to speak, and retrieve the edible portions inside.

What makes the nuthatch special?

The nuthatch uses its strong feet to hold onto surfaces. It can move up and down a tree in any orientation, and it spends much of its time upside down.

Where do nuthatches live?

Nuthatches can be found all over the Northern Hemisphere. There are four known species in North America. Many more species range across Europe and Asia, and even into Africa. Most live primarily in wooded areas or near agricultural zones. They are commonly found in close proximity to humans.

What do nuthatches eat?

Nuthatches are omnivorous. They eat insects and other invertebrates, often foraging for live prey hiding just beneath the bark of trees. They also eat grains, nuts and berries. They are known to frequent birdfeeders and agricultural areas where they can find grain left behind after harvests.

Are nuthatches aggressive?

Nuthatches can be very aggressive, chasing off other birds like chickadees and sparrows from bird feeders. They are particularly fearless when defending their nests. They have been known to attack crows and even fight off squirrels. They have a number of defensive postures and behaviors that help them to frighten away other animals.

Do nuthatches migrate?

Most species of nuthatches do not migrate. They manage to survive cold spells by practicing communal roosting, where many birds, sometimes well over 100, will roost together in a single tree cavity for warmth. They also use crevices in tree bark to store seeds and other snacks for times when food sources are scarce.

How long do nuthatches live?

The average lifespan of most nuthatch species is only about 2.5 to 3 years. However, the birds have been known to live longer than 10 years.

Are nuthatches rare?

Most nuthatches are not rare, at least within their range. Some species, however are threatened or endangered. The Bahama nuthatch is most at risk, with its population declining to fewer than 50 birds after hurricanes since 2004.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. ITIS (Integrated Taxonomic Information System - Report), Available here: https://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=178774#null
  2. Red List / BirdLife International, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/search/grid?query=nuthatch&searchType=species

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