What is a Nuthatch?

Few groups of birds are as endearing as the noble nuthatch.  The family Sittidae offers birders across the Northern Hemisphere no shortage of opportunities for merriment as they clamor through trees and feeding stations, almost always oriented on the vertical plane and offering vocalizations variously described as yanks, toots, and the squealing of arboreal rubber ducks.

The 25 species of nuthatches are currently all placed in the genus Sitta, and as such, share a number of characteristics.  All are characterized by short tails and large heads with long, powerful beaks.  All are cavity nesters, either in abandoned holes in snags or rock crevasses, and all forage for insects under bark by running head-down along the trunks and branches of trees.  All save one are non-migratory, the sole exception being the Red-breasted Nuthatch of North America which frequently irrupts into areas south of its boreal forest range in response to food shortages, and most, with a few notable and incredible exceptions, are humbly attired in various shades and patterns of white, gray, and black.

Nearly every birder in North America has the opportunity to get up close and personal with at least one, and often two, species of nuthatch.  Those in the western half of the continent claim the diminutive Pygmy Nuthatch as a frequent feeder guest and resident of high altitude Ponderosa Pine forests, while in the southeast its near twin, the Brown-headed Nuthatch, works the Loblolly Pines.  The aforementioned Red-breasted Nuthatch is a welcome visitor to feeding stations across the north and generates great excitement during its occasional forays southward.

Brown-headed Nuthatch, Photo by Alex Lamoreaux

But the default species over most of the continent is the White-breasted Nuthatch, whose nasally call rings out across oak and pine woodlands from sea to shining sea.  Like the family Sittidae itself, however, the White-breasted Nuthatch is not all it seems, and within the complex we know simply as “White-breasted” probably lie four distinct species, very similar in dress and call to birders, but distinct enough that the nuthatches know the difference.  The White-breasted Nuthatch you see in Illinois is quite different from the one you see in Colorado, which in turn is different from the one in California, which is not the same as the one in Mexico.  So much so, that in the very near future we may see that venerable species split four ways!  Undoubtedly, a testimony to the incredible diversity that too often lies hidden before our eyes.

White-breasted Nuthatch (Eastern), photo by Mike Bergin

Eurasian Nuthatch, photo by Corey Finger

And it’s that diversity that really surprises in this well-known and well-loved family.  While New World birders enjoy our four (and maybe 7) species, Old World birders have so much more to be thankful for.  True, the Eurasian Nuthatch may beat our own White-breasted (such that it exists in 2012) for the broadness of its range, holding a monopoly across the northern tier of Eurasia, but in the lower latitudes, from Turkey to Thailand, is where nuthatches amaze for reasons not necessarily related to their adorable antics.

Krüper’s Nuthatch, photo by Sarah Koschak

Granted, the entire spectrum of white, black, and gray is covered here, from the dapper Krüper’s Nuthatch of southeast Europe to the rusty Indian Nuthatch of – where else? – India.  But take a gander at the impossible species of southeast Asia, the epicenter of the family’s diversity and likely the evolutionary source of all the Sittids.  Why, Indonesia’s Velvet-fronted Nuthatch would barely look like a nuthatch at all if it didn’t retain that distinctive shape and that classic foraging strategy, and the truly impressive Beautiful Nuthatch of Burma and India looks most like a neotropical tanager.  Consider too, the Giant Nuthatch of China and Thailand, a monstrosity of a nuthatch who makes up for its relatively staid plumage with impressive girth!  A nuthatch the size of a jay.  Can you even imagine?

Beautiful Nuthatch, photo by James Eaton/Birdtour Asia

Nuthatches, both familiar and unfamiliar, are fantastic little birds.

And more, did you know that nuthatches appear to occupy the same ecological niche as the Sittellas of Australasia?


White-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis


Brown-headed Nuthatch, Sitta pusilla


Pygmy Nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea

Pygmy Nuthatch, photo by Larry Jordan

Eurasian Nuthatch, Sitta europaea


Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta candensis

White-cheeked Nuthatch, photo by Christian Artuso

Krüper’s Nuthatch, Sitta krueperi


Velvet-fronted Nuthatch, Sitta frontalis

General Nuthatches