The foraging behavior and call of the White-breasted Nuthatch makes this a rather easy bird to identify. Nuthatches creep up and headfirst down tree trunks looking for insects tucked into bark crevasses, and their nasal wha-wha-wha is quite distinctive. The White-breasted Nuthatch is a year round resident throughout its range and often visits bird feeders or joins mixed foraging flocks with Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice in winter. It inhabits deciduous forests from southern Canada to northern Florida and southern Mexico, and only the northern-most individuals migrate south during severe winters.
Description: The White-breasted Nuthatch has a blue-gray back with a black cap that tops an all-white face and breast. The flanks and undertail coverts are rusty, the tail is square, and the flight is undulating. The bill is long and slightly upturned. It creeps both up and headfirst down tree trunks while foraging. Sexes appear similar but the female cap is grayer.
Weight: 0.74 oz
Voice: The song is a rapid series of nasal wha-wha-wha notes lasting 2 to 3 seconds.
- Red-breasted Nuthatches are smaller, have a white stripe above the eye and a black stripe through the eye, and are reddish underneath. In Tennessee they breed only in high elevation spruce-fir forests in East Tennessee. During some winters, however, moderate numbers can be found across the state.
Habitat: Open woodlands with mature, primarily deciduous, trees, especially near openings and edges. Also, found in parks and suburbs with large trees.
Diet: Insects, nuts, and seeds.
Nesting and reproduction: White-breasted Nuthatches are cavity nesters and pairs maintain permanent territories throughout the year. Breeding activity in Tennessee begins in late winter when the males start singing more often and display to their mates.
Clutch Size: From 5 to 10 eggs with 8 most common.
Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for 12 to 14 days and is often fed by her mate.
Fledging: Both parents feed the young for a couple of weeks after fledging. Families often remain together into the fall.
Nest: The female selects a natural cavity or old woodpecker hole and packs it with twigs, fur, feathers, and bark shreds. White-breasted Nuthatches will occasionally nest in nest boxes. Nest Box Instructions here.
Status in Tennessee: Fairly common permanent resident across Tennessee. Numbers have been increasing in recent years probably because both forested area and the maturity of forests has increased in the state.
Dynamic map of White-breasted Nuthatch eBird observations in Tennessee
- Nuthatches gather and store nuts and seeds, jamming them into tree bark and hammer or "hatch" the food open with their bills at a later time.
- The reasons nuthatches forage by climbing down trees are not fully known, but it may be that they can spot prey hidden from creepers, woodpeckers, and other upward-facing feeders.
- The oldest White-breasted Nuthatch in the wild was 9 years 10 months old.
Obsolete English Names: slender-billed nuthatch
Best places to see in Tennessee: Found across the state but is more likely to occur in larger woodlands.
For more information:
Tennessee's Woodworking for Wildlife page with nest box instructions
Grubb, Jr., T. C. and V. V. Pravosudov. 2008. White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), The Birds of North America (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.