Get to Know the Gravity-Defying Nuthatch Bird Family

Updated: Jan. 12, 2022

Moving headfirst down tree trunks is just one nuthatch bird trait. Find out more about the members of this fun-to-watch songbird family.

White Red Breasted Nuthatches
Francis & Janice Bergquist
A white-breasted nuthatch and smaller red-breasted nuthatch cling to opposite sides of the tree’s trunk.

Meet the Nuthatch Bird Family

The only flyers that routinely forage upside down, the short-legged and stubby-tailed nuthatch bird family is built for hugging tree bark while peering into crevices for bugs.

A quick jab with their long bills, and insect eggs, larvae, cocoons or adult bugs become their next meal. The birds are doing the trees a favor—all that foraging protects the trees from pests.

Nuthatches might be oddballs in their upside-down foraging habits, but at the feeder, the foods they love to eat are familiar.

The first clue is in their name: Nuts are number one! Chopped nuts (especially peanuts) and sunflower seeds are their mainstays.

Suet, peanut butter and mealworms are welcomed, too. At feeders, nuthatches often grab and go, carrying the nuts and seeds away to hack up elsewhere. Unlike jays or chickadees, they don’t hold their food with their feet to work at it. Instead, they wedge the nut or seed into a crevice so it will stay put while they hammer away, chipping it into bite-sized bits with their bills. They also cache food by hammering it into cracks.

They’re clever in other ways, too. Nuthatches have been observed responding to warnings from other bird species that predators are near.

All nuthatches have the same shape, with blue-gray backs and lighter bellies (females are paler than males). Quick and agile, nuthatches are some of the most entertaining backyard fliers.

A white-breasted nuthatch makes its way down a tree.
Steve and Dave Maslowski

White-Breasted Nuthatch

The biggest nuthatch bird of the bunch, this 5 1/2-inch species may be mistaken for a woodpecker—until its habit of going down tree trunks headfirst gives it away. Stark white below, it’s a year-round sight across the country, appearing singly or in pairs on deciduous or coniferous trees and making loud, nasal  yank-yank calls.

White-breasted nuthatches frequent feeders and may adopt a nest box, since they prefer to use an existing cavity rather than chisel out their own. In winter, pairs often join a foraging flock of chickadees and other small birds.

A red-breasted nuthatch sitting on an evergreen branch covered in snow.
Steve and Dave Maslowski

Red-Breasted Nuthatch

This little nuthatch, with a rusty breast and a white stripe above the eye, is remarkably unafraid of people. Seen year-round in western and northern forests, it’s the only migratory nuthatch. Some don’t migrate at all, others make short journeys, and during a thrilling irruption year, big numbers move south as far as the Gulf Coast.

Everything this bird does is rapid, including its yammering eng-eng-eng call, except when there’s a hawk around. Then it freezes like a statue until the coast is clear. Seen singly or in pairs except during migration, these birds eagerly come to feeders.

Red-breasted nuthatches dig their own nest holes, then smear conifer sap around the entrance, sometimes using a flake of bark as a tool to spread the sticky stuff. The sap deters predators but doesn’t hinder the nuthatches, which dive straight in without first pausing to perch.

Nuthatch vs chickadee: Here’s how to tell the difference.

A pair of pygmy nuthatches playfully cling to a stick.
Christine Haines

Pygmy Nuthatch

Look for groups of the smallest nuthatch, only 4 inches long, in western forests of ponderosa and other pines. Pygmy nuthatches have a pale cinnamon breast and grayish brown cap. And they are talkative! Keeping up a constant pip-pip-pip-pippety, the sociable birds roam about in search of insects and pine seeds and visit feeders for the usual nuthatch treats.

Pygmy nuthatches may dig out a new nest cavity or adapt an existing one. Their relatives, especially their young male offspring, serve as nest helpers to defend and feed the brood.

On brutally cold nights, the flock—which can number more than 100 in winter—roosts together in a tree cavity, with birds crowding in by the dozens and lowering their body temperature so they need fewer calories to keep them alive.

A brown-headed nuthatch holds a seed as it hangs from the bark of a tree.
Christine Haines

Brown-Headed Nuthatch

Squeeze a squeaky toy repeatedly as fast as you can, and you’ll have an idea of the brown-headed nuthatches’ voice. Look up to find small groups in the pine forests of the Southeast, usually high in the trees.

A little over 4 inches long with a rich brown cap, the brown-headed nuthatch often uses a flake of bark as a tool to lift other pieces to reveal insects. Nuts and sunflower seeds are a big hit at feeders, and a nest box may get takers. Again, watch for nest helpers, usually young males, that assist the others with feeding and defense.

Next, meet the 3 types of goldfinches in the United States.