Nuthatch vs Chickadee: How to Tell the Difference

It's easier than you think to tell the difference between a nuthatch vs a chickadee. Find out what to look for when you spot these birds in your backyard.

Chickadees and nuthatches are active songbirds that are commonly spotted in backyard trees. They flutter about, looking for insects to eat, and also frequently visit bird feeders. These small birds also nest in tree cavities. But despite the similarities, there are easy ways to identify these birds. Here’s how to tell the difference between a nuthatch vs a chickadee.

Nuthatch vs Chickadee

white breasted nuthatch in winterCourtesy Diann Marksberry
White-breasted nuthatch

Nuthatches often walk headfirst down tree trunks and cling to bird feeders upside down. They have shorter tails and longer bills than chickadees. Nuthatches often cache bugs, seeds and nuts away in small crevices to find and eat later. The white-breasted nuthatch is the most common, and is widespread in forests, parks and backyards across the United States. They do not migrate, so you can see them year-round across their range. This species has a black cap, like a chickadee, but with a white face and throat, and a blueish gray back. You may see brown or orange coloring on their lower belly.

Couclc19 Brittany Lawrence 8Courtesy Brittany Lawrence / Country magazine
Red breasted nuthatch at a suet feeder

Red breasted nuthatches do migrate, so look for them at your feeders in fall and winter. They spend the breeding season farther north. Look for a white eyebrow and a black eye stripe, as well as a light orange chest and belly.

Other nuthatches you should know are the brown headed nuthatch, which resides in the Deep South, and the pygmy nuthatch that is found in the western states.

How to tell the difference: downy vs hairy woodpeckers.

black-capped chickadeeCourtesy John Piznuir
Black capped chickadee

Black-capped chickadees have longer tails, a black cap and bib under their chin, and buff colored sides. These cute birds also have shorter bills than nuthatches. Listen for their distinctive “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” song. Carolina chickadees look very similar to their black-capped cousins and are very common birds across the southeastern states. The edge of their bib may appear neater.

black and white birds, Carolina chickadee in a treeCourtesy Emily Boward
Carolina chickadee

In the west, look for mountain chickadees, which have a white eyebrow on their black caps, and the more colorful chestnut-backed chickadees. Boreal chickadees, which feature a brown cap and plain brown sides, are residents of the far northern forests. Psst—baby chickadees are utterly adorable.

Next, learn the difference between European robins vs American robins.

Lori Vanover
Lori has 20 years of experience writing and editing home, garden, birding and lifestyle content for several publishers. As Birds & Blooms senior digital editor, she leads a team of writers and editors sharing birding tips and expert gardening advice. Since joining Trusted Media Brands 13 years ago, she has held roles in digital and print, editing magazines and books, curating special interest publications, managing social media accounts, creating digital content and newsletters, and working with the Field Editors—Birds & Blooms network of more than 50 backyard birders. Passionate about animals and nature, Lori has a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural and Environmental Communications from the University of Illinois. In 2023, she became certified as a Wisconsin Extension Master Gardener, and she is a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology and sits on the organization's Publications Advisory Committee. She frequently checks on her bird feeders while working from home and tests new varieties of perennials, herbs and vegetable plants in her ever-growing backyard gardens.