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What Time is it in Nature: Brown-headed Nuthatch

April 26, 2014

Many birds make use of Prairie Ridge. Some are here year-round while others only make short visits as they migrate north or south toward other habitats. The Brown-headed Nuthatch is a wonderful year-round resident of Prairie Ridge and has some fascinating characteristics.

Brown headed Nuthatch

Brown-headed Nuthatches belong to the nuthatch group of birds and have the compact, rather stubby bodies and long, pointed beaks of their close relatives. They are the smallest member of the eastern nuthatches, reaching just over 4 inches in length with a 7 inch wingspan. Like other local nuthatches, the Brown-headed Nuthatch has a grey upper body and wings, though their brown heads and the white spot at the nape of their necks makes them easy to distinguish from other nuthatches.

Brown-headed Nuthatches live in mature pine forests, particularly those with an open understory, and you will see them hopping about near the ends of tree branches or up and down the trunks as they search for insect prey. They nest in forests, either excavating their own cavities from soft snags or using cavities created by woodpeckers. They nest closer to the ground than a lot of other cavity nesting birds, which makes them vulnerable to predation by animals such as snakes, raccoons, and domestic cats.  One of the most interesting behaviors Brown-headed Nuthatches exhibit is related to nesting.  Young are cared for by both parents, but they often get help from other birds, usually young males.  Scientists still don’t know if these helper birds are older offspring of the parents or completely unrelated, but their help is valuable regardless of their relationship to the parents.

Very few birds are known to use tools of any sort, but Brown-headed Nuthatches are among those that do.  They hunt for insects in forests, using their long and sharp beaks to probe into crevices in bark, pinecones, and other hard-to-reach areas.  You will sometimes see one carrying a small piece of bark in its beak that it will use to pry bark from trees to gain access to the insects underneath.  The birds will also sometimes use their bark pieces to cover a seed cache, scraping soil and plant matter over the store.

We have Brown-headed Nuthatches at Prairie Ridge year-round, but there are few places you are likely to see them now.  Look for small brown-headed birds at the feeders or sitting on branches nearby.  We also have a pair nesting in one of our nest boxes!  We ask that you please give them space as they lay eggs and raise their young, but you can watch them from a safe distance without disturbing them.  As you walk down the road toward the outdoor classroom, stop by the fence near the Nature Neighborhood Garden and look out toward the closest nesting box.  You’ll see the parents coming in and out of the nest, and if you’re lucky you may be able to see some brand new Brown-headed Nuthatches making their first flight on your next trip to Prairie Ridge!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photo by Alan R. Clark, used with permission)

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