Nuthatches are wonderful, perky little birds that are often spotted hopping upside down along tree trunks or on suet feeders in backyards. Nearly all of North America and southern Canada can enjoy seeing one of these feisty little visitors, especially in the wintertime when they are everyday visitors to backyard bird feeders.
North American Nuthatch Species
There are roughly 25 species of nuthatch to be found worldwide, but only four are commonly seen in North America:
- The white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is one of the most likely guests to visit backyards. It can be seen in most areas at any time of year but is easily spotted in the wintertime when it visits feeders to feast on seeds and suet. It is a very common winter backyard visitor in mixed groups of nuthatches, small woodpeckers, juncos, and chickadees.
- The red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) is similar in appearance to the white-breasted, but with a rosy-colored chest and abdomen, and striped white and black head. U.S. birdwatchers are most likely to see it in the winter, since its summer territory is Canada, the very northern edges of the U.S., and the high elevations of the Rockies. They often migrate in search of food in the winter, and if supplied with reliable nourishment, they may take up permanent residence.
- The pygmy nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea) lives in western pine forests, typically in groups of up to 15 birds. It is not a common visitor to backyard feeders.
- The brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) is found mostly in the southern states and southeastern seaboard. It is very unusual to spot them north of this range. Its natural habitat is southern pine forests, but it often joins mixed groups of chickadees, woodpeckers, and pine warblers at backyard feeders.
Characteristics of Nuthatches
All nuthatches eat copious amounts of insects, making them a favored visitor in areas where insect infestations and caterpillars can damage trees. Any nuthatch's nimble acrobatics as it forages headfirst down a tree or dangles from branches can be entertaining to watch, and these sleek birds are popular whenever they arrive in a bird-friendly backyard.
In winter, these birds love to feast on seeds and high-calorie suet or peanut butter. It's at this time, when food supplies are slim, that they are most likely to show up at your backyard feeders. Nuthatches typically nest in tree cavities or abandoned woodpecker holes. It's rare to get them to nest in birdhouses, though the presence of dead trees on your property may encourage nesting pairs.
How to Attract Nuthatches
The key to attracting any bird is to meet the bird's basic needs for food, water, shelter, and nesting sites. Backyard birders can easily do this for nuthatches by providing for the birds' specific needs:
- Food: Nuthatches are primarily insectivorous, but they will easily visit bird feeders for nuts, sunflower seeds, mealworms, suet, and peanut butter, particularly in fall and winter. If you learn how to offer suet to backyard birds and add peanut feeders to the buffet, nuthatches will happily become regular guests. Growing sunflowers or adding trees that provide natural nuts such as acorns, hazelnuts, beechnuts or hickory nuts is a great way to offer natural food sources for these birds as well. Evergreen trees are a nuthatch favorite for their seeds, and minimizing insecticides ensures a ready supply of protein-rich insects for the birds to eat.
- Water: Even if a nuthatch is reluctant to visit a feeder, it still needs a clean, fresh water source from which to drink. A birdbath should be shallow to attract nuthatches, and they are even more attracted to moving water from drippers, wigglers, bird bath fountains, or misters. Nuthatches have even been known to flutter in oscillating sprinklers, so timing lawn or garden watering to birds' activity periods can help entice them to visit. Placing the birdbath near a tree where nuthatches are more likely to feed regularly will help make it more noticeable to the birds.
- Shelter: Birds need shelter at night and to stay protected from the foul weather. Nuthatches will readily use cavities, so providing bird roost boxes can give these small birds a safe, comfortable place to rest. Dead trees should be left intact as much as possible so the birds can take advantage of natural cavities, as well. On warmer nights, both coniferous and deciduous trees can provide adequate shelter for all types of nuthatches to stay safe, though larger, taller and more mature trees are preferred.
- Nesting sites: Watching a pair of nuthatches raise their brood of tiny chicks is a treat, and providing good nesting sites can tempt these cavity-nesting birds to become permanent residents. Birders who take steps to attract woodpeckers may find nuthatches moving into old woodpecker holes, so older trees and hollow snags should be left intact. Nuthatches will also sometimes take up residence in bird houses if the entrance hole and overall bird house dimensions are favorable. The box should be placed on a tree trunk high enough to help the birds feel secure, but it should also be protected from predators so the birds are not in danger. Providing nesting materials such as pet fur, fine grass, or shredded bark and leaves can also convince nuthatches to stay nearby.
More Tips for Attracting Nuthatches
Even a yard or garden designed with nuthatches in mind may not immediately attract these sometimes suspicious birds. If you know the birds are in the area but they haven't yet made an appearance in your yard, try these techniques:
- Minimize or eliminate the use of insecticides, pesticides, and other outdoor chemical use to promote more abundant food for the birds.
- Plant nut-bearing trees or shrubs and keep mature trees intact with minimal pruning to provide the best food and habitat.
- Smear soft suet or peanut butter on tree trunks for easy, convenient nuthatch feeding. Attaching suet feeders directly to tree trunks can also encourage nuthatch visits.
- Leave dead trees intact as food sources, shelter and nesting sites. A messy landscape is a more bird-friendly one, especially for sometimes shy birds such as nuthatches.
- Watch flocks of other small birds, such as chickadees, tits, creepers, and small woodpeckers. Nuthatches often join these types of birds in winter and will stay with the mixed flock while foraging. They may be in the yard already but go unnoticed in the group.
Above all, be patient. Nuthatches have bold personalities but may take a long time to trust a new area well enough to come out in the open. Over time, however, these fun birds can become backyard favorites all year round.