Have you ever heard an unusual sound in your backyard, almost like a nearby dog is playing with a squeaky toy?
You may have heard the Brown-headed nuthatch!
Brown-headed nuthatches are not found in most of the United States, but if you find yourself in a pine forest in the US South, listen for the sound of a rubber ducky or another squeaky toy.
If you hear that noise, you will know to look for the easily-camouflaged Brown-headed nuthatch.
All About the Brown-Headed Nuthatch
- Length: 3.9-4.3 in (10-11 cm)
- Weight: 0.3 oz (10 g)
- Wingspan: 6.3-7.1 in (16-18 cm)
The Brown-headed nuthatch’s scientific name is Sitta pusilla, and it is a Passerine (member of the Passeriformes order) of the family Sittidae.
Passerines make up more than half of the world’s bird species. They have three toes that point forward and one that points backward, which allows them to perch easily.
Identifying a Brown-Headed Nuthatch by Sight
Brown-headed nuthatches are mostly sexually monomorphic, which means that males and females look alike. You will not differentiate between the sexes just by looking at them.
These birds are very small! Think of it this way: a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is about 3.5 inches in length, and a Brown-headed nuthatch is only 3.9-4.3 inches!
They are quite compact with a rounded body. Their legs, tails, and necks are short, but they have a relatively long, sharp, chisel-shaped bill.
Their coloring helps them blend into their wooded surroundings. From beneath, they are mostly white. From above, they are gray. The head of a Brown-headed nuthatch is, as you can probably guess from its name, brown. They also have small white spots on their tail, which you can only see when they are in flight.
Squeak Squeak! Identifying a Brown-Headed Nuthatch by Sound
The Brown-headed nuthatch has an unusual call.
You can listen to several versions of their call thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Cornell Lab describes their call and song like this:
Songs: Brown-headed Nuthatches don’t sing complicated songs, but they are plenty vocal. They make tiny squeaks that sound like a toy rubber ducky being squeezed. These wheezy 2-syllable notes emanate from the treetops year-round. They repeat each squeak 1–12 times. Although not loud by themselves, other members of the group usually join in to amplify the sound.
Calls: In addition to the commonly heard rubber-ducky vocalization, Brown-headed Nuthatches also make a rapid series of high-pitched, jumbled notes, sometimes combined with the rubber-ducky vocalization. During foraging bouts, individuals also make soft single-noted calls—useful for finding groups of nuthatches.
More Examples of the Brown-Headed Nuthatch Squeak-Squeak Sound
This video is a great example of the squeaky toy sound! (When I played this video, my dogs came running!)
Here’s another video if you want to study their calls and songs even more.
Where Do Brown-Headed Nuthatches Live?
Brown-headed nuthatches are non-migratory, year-round residents of the southeastern United States.
They live almost exclusively in the region’s pine forests, including loblolly, shortleaf, longleaf, and slash pine forests. They are more likely to be found in mature pine forests, as opposed to stands of mixed pine and hardwoods.
Their nesting habits prompt them to find holes that have already been excavated or excavate new holes in trees that are dead, decaying, or struggling to survive.
They will also nest in abandoned woodpecker cavities, nesting boxes, fence posts, and even telephone poles. They are very comfortable at great heights and can be found in nests up to 88 feet above the ground.
They do their excavation work quickly, flinging aside all of the material that they pull from the tree.
After discarding all of this material, they add their own bedding materials: feathers, loose cotton, pine seed wings, or strips of bark. This creates a soft, comfortable nest for these little birds.
It takes between 1 and 6 weeks to build their perfect nest. It can be difficult to spot a Brown-Headed Nuthatch nest because the entrance hole to the nest may only be around an inch in diameter.
These tiny nuthatches lay 3-7 cream-colored, brown-splotched eggs in each clutch. They incubate the eggs for 18-19 days.
When baby Brown-headed nuthatches are hatched, they are naked, but they have a few patches of downy feathers. Their eyes are closed when they hatch.
The Brown-Headed Nuthatch’s Diet
Brown-headed nuthatches eat both seeds and insects.
During the summer, when the weather is warm and insects are plentiful, their diet includes spiders, cockroaches, beetles, and various eggs and larvae. If it’s an insect that lives inside the bark of a tree, they will probably eat it!
Interestingly, Brown-headed nuthatches are tool users. They will take a small strip of bark and use it to pry off the rest of the bark from a tree. Then, they can access the insects beneath the tree bark!
During the winter, their diet shifts to mostly pine seeds, which are plentiful in their pine forest habitats.
These social birds have a number of interesting behaviors.
First, their use of tools makes them unusual in the bird world. In addition to using strips of bark to peel the bark off of trees in order to get to their food, Brown-Headed Nuthatches will also hammer pine seeds against a tree to break them open and get to the food.
They will also use their bill to pry and poke under tree bark.
Although they will eat small insects as soon as they find them, they will rip the legs off large bugs (cockroaches, beetles, etc) and eat them a bit later, after flying off to a comfortable perch. If they catch enough food, they will store some of it for later.
Nuthatches are not monogamous for a lifetime, but they will choose one mate to stay with for several years in a row.
Finally, nuthatches participate in what is called cooperative breeding. This is when multiple birds of the same species work together to raise new offspring. Young Brown-Headed Nuthatches will help their parents raise the next brood in the year after they hatch themselves.
Enjoy These Delightful Birds!
The next time you are in one of the pine forests of the southeastern United States, listen for that quirky, unique squeaky sound. They aren’t particularly loud birds, but because they are so social, you may hear a group of “squeaky toys” in the branches of the pine trees.
Good luck spotting these cute little birds! Thankfully, they have this great, easily-identifiable sound to help us find them!