What Do Nuthatches Eat?

Sitta europaea (Eurasian nuthatch) perched on a mossy tree trunk.
© John Navajo/Shutterstock.com

Written by Jeremiah Wright

Published: October 8, 2022

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These small yet charming birds called nuthatches are famous for their foraging habits. Although their legs are short, they’re so strong that these small birds can hang upside down and descend trees head-first!

But do they always climb trees to look for food, or is there anything for them to eat on the ground? This depends on the seasons and the species’ preferences. Continue reading to learn what nuthatches eat, how they forage, and how they feed their babies!

What Are Nuthatches?

Birds that look like robins: Red-breasted Nuthatch

There are almost 30 species of nuthatches.

©iStock.com/M. Leonard Photography

People use the term nuthatch to refer to the passerine bird species in the Sitta genus of the Sittidae family. There are almost 30 species of nuthatches. Here are some of them:

  • The Przevalski’s nuthatch, scientifically called Sitta przewalskii
  • The white-cheeked nuthatch, scientifically called Sitta leucopsis
  • The beautiful nuthatch, scientifically called Sitta formosa
  • The yellow-billed nuthatch, scientifically called Sitta solangiae
  • The Algerian nuthatch, scientifically called Sitta ledanti
  • The Chinese nuthatch, scientifically called Sitta villosa
  • The white-tailed nuthatch, scientifically called Sitta himalayensis

These birds live in North America, Europe, and Asia. Some birds inhabit Africa. They prefer to inhabit coniferous and other evergreen forests. The place they call home highly depends on what tree they prefer because it’s different for each species. For instance, the Corsican nuthatch prefers Corsican pine, while the Eurasian nuthatch prefers deciduous or mixed woods.

Nuthatches are small birds with short legs, compressed wings, pointed bills, and strong toes and claws. They vary in size, depending on the species. The largest species is the giant nuthatch, measuring 7.7 inches long and weighing 1.3 – 1.7 ounces, while the smallest is the pygmy nuthatch and the brown-headed nuthatch, both having a length of roughly 3.9 inches and a weight of 0.35 ounces. 

Most species have blue-gray backs and white underparts. Some species have orange, lilac, or rufous shades on their underparts. Some Asian nuthatches have violet-blue on their backs and yellow or red bills. One of the most common head markings is the long black eye stripe, the blackish cap, and the dark forehead. 

What Do Nuthatches Eat?

Eurasian nuthatch also called wood nuthatch hanging on a tree trunk in the forest.

Nuthatches eat insects and other invertebrates.

©Hajakely/Shutterstock.com

Nuthatches are omnivorous birds. They primarily eat insects and other invertebrates. During winter, they may feed on seeds and fruit if the prey is scarce. Let’s check some nuthatch species’ diets: 

  • Giant nuthatches eat berries, beetles, butterflies, and ants.
  • White-breasted nuthatches primarily eat seeds and insects. During winter, 70% of their diet consists of seeds. They feed on hickory nuts, acorns, sunflower seeds, caterpillars, ants, oyster shells, pine weevils, and jumping plant lice. 
  • Beautiful nuthatches eat small insects and larvae they find on trunks and tree branches covered in epiphyte. 
  • Velvet-fronted nuthatches eat insects and spiders found on trunks and branches. 
  • Algerian nuthatches eat seeds during winter and arthropods during summer. They prefer caterpillars, beetles, and coniferous seeds.
  • Krüper’s nuthatches primarily feed on insects during the breeding season and pine seeds or other coniferous seeds during autumn and winter.
  • Corsican nuthatches’ diet consists primarily of pine nuts, but they also eat insects and spiders.
  • Chinese nuthatches eat only insects like butterflies, bugs, beetles, and flies when it’s warm outside. During winter, they switch to nuts, tree fruits, and seeds.
  • Western rock nuthatches eat spiders and insects during summer. During winter, though, besides seeds, they may also eat snails.

As you’ve probably noticed, most species prefer eating insects and spiders during summer and seeds during winter. However, some species have specific preferences, such as snails during winter, fewer spiders, or certain types of seeds.

A List of Foods Nuthatches Eat

Here’s a list of foods nuthatches eat:

  • Beetles
  • Butterflies
  • Bugs
  • Flies 
  • Spiders 
  • Hickory nuts
  • Acorns
  • Caterpillars
  • Oystershell
  • Pine nuts

How Do Nuthatches Forage?

Eurasian nuthatch at its den in a tree.

Most nuthatches forage along tree trunks and branches.

©Matauw/Shutterstock.com

Most nuthatches forage along tree trunks and branches. Although these birds have short legs, they’re strong enough to provide them with support in descending trees head-first and hanging upside-down beneath branches.

Some nuthatch species forage alone, while others forage in pairs or alongside other bird species. For instance, giant nuthatches prefer looking for food either alone or in pairs. Beautiful nuthatches can forage alone or in groups of up to five birds. Some individuals prefer foraging alongside long-tailed broadbills, marron orioles, or white-browed scimitar babblers. Velvet-fronted nuthatches enjoy foraging and feeding with other birds.

Corsican nuthatches forage in the treetops during spring and summer and along trunks and branches during winter. They may also look for food with other bird species.

What Do Baby Nuthatches Eat?

Eurasian nuthatch (Sitta europaea) babies waiting to be fed.

Baby nuthatches will eat insects small enough for them to swallow.

©Arnau Soler/Shutterstock.com

Like their parents, baby nuthatches will eat insects small enough for them to swallow. Moreover, their parents will bring them seeds. Here’s what adult nuthatches will bring their young to eat:

  • Treehoppers
  • Gall fly larvae
  • Caterpillars
  • Beetles
  • Stink bugs
  • Scale insects
  • Spiders
  • Earwigs
  • Ants
  • Acorns
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Hawthorn
  • Corn 

A study based on poop samples collected from Algerian nuthatch babies allowed the researchers to count 686 types of prey! They primarily found insects (95.4%), and the rest were spiders (4.96%). They found many different beetle and earwig samples.

If you have a baby nuthatch at home, you should try to feed it roughly the same foods it would get in the wild. They can also eat hard-boiled eggs, raw liver, moistened dog or cat biscuits, and kibble.

Baby nuthatches shouldn’t be given water because it may fill their lungs. Moreover, they can’t eat bread, milk, pet bird food, or kitchen scraps. Don’t forget that caring for a baby nuthatch at home may be challenging and time-consuming, as it eats frequently and is very demanding. Can you imagine that adult nuthatches make more than a hundred trips a day to feed their babies?

Do Nuthatches Migrate?

Most nuthatch species keep their homes throughout the whole year. Red-breasted nuthatches are the only ones to migrate. During warm seasons, they live in the northernmost parts of Canada but winter widely across North America.

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About the Author

I hold seven years of professional experience in the content world, focusing on nature, and wildlife. Asides from writing, I enjoy surfing the internet and listening to music.

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