Charming and small, and one of the region’s most creative feeders
By Susan Campbell
If you have ever heard the sound of what seems to be a squeaky toy emanating from the treetops here along the coast, you may have had an encounter with a brown-headed nuthatch. This bird’s small size and active lifestyle make it a challenge to spot, but once you know what to look and listen for, you will realize it is a common year-round resident.
Brown-headeds are about 4 inches long with gray backs, white bellies and as the name suggests, brown heads. And in this species, males are indistinguishable from females. Their coloration creates perfect camouflage against the tree branches that the birds can be found foraging on, in search of seeds and insects. Their oversize bill allows them to pry open a variety of seeds as well as pine cones and dig deep in the cracks of tree bark for grubs. By virtue of their strong feet and sharp claws, brown-headed nuthatches are capable of crawling head-first down the trunk of trees as easily as going up. Although they do not sing, these birds have a distinctive two-syllable squeak, which they may roll together if they are especially excited.
Brown-headed nuthatches do take advantage of feeders. So if you live near a significant stand of mature pines, they well may be your neighbors. Brown-headeds, when they have found free food, will frequent both sunflower seed feeders and suet from dawn until dusk. An excellent spot to view them would be the feeding station at Carolina Beach State Park. They are very accustomed to people, so viewing at close range is possible, as are fantastic photo opportunities.
This species is one of the area’s smallest breeding birds. It is a non-migratory resident, living as a family group for most of the year. Unlike its cousin, the white-breasted nuthatch, which can be found in mixed forests across the state, the brown-headed is a bird of the mature pine forest. Brown-headeds are endemic to the southeastern United States, from coastal Virginia through most of Florida and west to the eastern edge of Texas. Their range actually covers the historic reaches of the longleaf pine. However, this little bird has switched to using other species of pine such as loblolly and Virginia pine in the longleaf’s absence.
Brown-headed nuthatches are capable of excavating their own nest hole in small dead trees in early spring. But because so few of the appropriate-size trees are available (due to humans tidying up the landscape), brown-headed nuthatches have taken to using nest boxes in recent years. However, unless the hole is small enough to exclude larger birds such as bluebirds, they may be out-competed for the space. For this reason the species is now one of concern across the Southeast, with populations in decline. In addition to reductions in breeding productivity, logging, fire suppression as well as forest fragmentation are causing significant challenges for brown-headed nuthatches.
Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted at email@example.com.