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Brown-headed Nuthatch
Sitta pusilla

The Brown-headed Nuthatch is restricted to the pine forests of the southeastern United States. The first record of this species in Tennessee was in 1968 in Hamilton County, and the first nest was found in that county in 1977. This is one of the few birds for which tool use has been documented. An individual will use a chip of pine bark to pry under other bits of bark to look for insects. It may carry the bark tool from tree to tree. The Brown-headed Nuthatch is a locally uncommon year-round resident in Tennessee found primarily in Knox, Anderson, Blount, Loudon, and Hamilton Counties.

Description: This small nuthatch has a bluish-gray back, wings, and tail; a dull brown cap; a small, white patch on the nape of the neck; a dark eye-line; and white cheeks, chest, and belly. Male and female are similar in appearance; the juvenile is similar but duller and the white neck-spot may be absent.
Length: 4.5"
0.35 oz

Voice: The call is a loud, high, sharp, slightly nasal squeak, like that of a rubber duck toy.

Similar Species:

Habitat: In Tennessee prefers shortleaf pine and loblolly pine.

Diet: Insects and pine seeds.

Nesting and reproduction: In TN nest construction has been recorded as early as 21 February, but peak egg laying is from mid-April to mid-May. Second broods are rare.

Clutch Size: 4 to 6 eggs

Incubation: The male will feed the female as she alone incubates the eggs for 14 days.

Fledging: Both adults feed the nestlings, which leave the nest in 18 or 19 days. The young will stay with the adults for another 2 to 4 weeks.

Nest: Both sexes excavate the cavity, which is usually in a dead tree; they also accept nest boxes. The mean nest height in Tennessee is 10 feet.

Status in Tennessee: A locally uncommon permanent resident.

Dynamic map of Brown-headed Nuthatch eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • The southern pine beetle is a very small insect, only about 1/8 inch long, that drills holes into pine trees and lays eggs under the bark. The tree dies either directly from the damage caused by the beetles, or from a fungus that the beetles bring into the tree. From 1999 to 2002, Tennessee experienced its worst recorded epidemic of southern pine beetle. Pine timber valued at $358 million was killed over approximately 390,000 acres. Infestations reached epidemic levels in 57 counties.
  • The Brown-headed Nuthatch often joins mixed-species foraging flocks in winter, where another pine specialist the Pine Warbler, is often found. In these flocks the nuthatch and warbler appear to compete for food. Research has shown that the two birds are evenly matched; the nuthatch displaces the warbler from the preferred foraging spots just as frequently as the warbler attacks the nuthatch.
  • An endangered population of Brown-headed Nuthatch occurs on the Grand Bahamas. Some authorities consider this population a separate species, S. insularis.

Best places to see in Tennessee: Hickory Hollow Lake, Knox, Co.; Louisville Point Park, Blount Co.; Melton Hill Dam Recreation Area and Ft. Loudoun Dam Bank Access Overlook, Loudon Co.; Gallaher Bend at Clark Center Park, Anderson Co.; Chester Frost Park, Harrison Bay SP, Booker T Washington SP, Brainerd Levee, Hamilton Co.

For more information:


Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, TN.

Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of TN Press, Knoxville, TN.

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.

Withgott, J. H., and K. G. Smith. 1998. Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla). The Birds of North America, No. 349 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.