January 2024
Bird of the Month
Ryan Crouse

White-Breasted Nuthatch

Bird of the Month by Ryan Crouse

In the shop I manage, The Lookout, we often get questions about bird identification. Through the years a common description of a certain bird species tends to go something like this:

“I have a small woodpecker in my yard that I can’t identify. It has a bright white belly, a dark head and back, and it walks down the trunk of the tree head-first!”

While this is a fantastic description of the mystery species, it’s not actually a woodpecker at all. In this instance they are certainly describing the omnipresent white-breasted nuthatch.

This is a very common woodland species across almost the entire contiguous US, and it ranges well into the Canadian provinces. The birds are most commonly found in forested habitat, but I have personally seen them in a wide variety of habitats within Arizona. If you hope to to find one, the great swathes of Ponderosa pine forest that dominate much of northern and central Arizona are your safest bet to observe this keystone avian species.

One of the several ways they’re similar to the woodpecker family is their propensity for pecking at wood, both alive and dead, in search of their next meal. Also similar to woodpeckers, they dine on a wide variety of insects and tree nuts. In our area they will target Ponderosa and pinyon nuts while also happily gobbling down fat wood-inhabiting grubs and larvae they find along the way.

Along with their pecking, they have a long sticky tongue that is actually barbed at the end. This specialist’s tongue is used to probe small cavities revealed by pecking. As they peck, they listen for hollow voids hidden within the wood where they are likely to find juicy, protein-packed grubs. Once they expose the cavity to the outside world, that barbed tongue can snare the hidden prize.

Ryan Crouse

Along with this quest for concealed insects, they are prolific nut and seed eaters. They are known to cache large piles of nuts and will defend their territory against invaders who might rob them of their bounty. They are so focused on building their caches that they tend to flock with other like-minded species. In doing this they can use the group to find hotpots of food, but they also learn to recognize the alarm calls of other species. With this, rather than being constantly on the lookout for predators such as the Cooper’s hawk or merlin, they can devote more time to hunting.

For a species that eats nuts and seeds at such a high rate, it could be argued that they aren’t the most efficient at it. As do titmouses and chickadees, they’ll grab a single nut and fly to another tree, wedge the nut in a crevice in the bark or bare wood, and only then will they peck at it with their chisel-like beak till they reveal the payoff inside. Despite my personal reservations, they do seem to get along just fine, though.

In Arizona we have three different native nuthatch species, and we can see them all in the Prescott area. The other two are the striking red-breasted nuthatch and the aptly named pygmy nuthatch. The red-breasted nuthatch tends to stick to elevations of 7,000 feet and higher. But during the winter we often get them venturing into the city limits, especially during bumper crops of certain pine nuts. This is one of those years, with the local pinyon-pine crop being quite plentiful. 

They are easily detected by ear due to their very distinct nasal call; seeing them is another story. I recently heard some up Copper Basin Road, and they can be found year-round on top of Mingus Mountain. During snow events, be especially aware to the possibility of seeing one.

Throughout the calendar year we can detect and observe the pygmy nuthatch in the Ponderosa forests to the south and west of Prescott. Granite Basin Lake and Schoolhouse Gulch Trail near the White Spar campground are great places to find them, although they tend to stick to the tops of mature Ponderosas.

Again, your hearing is your best bet for detecting them, then crane your neck to try and get your eyes on them. Unlike the white- and red-breasted varieties, the pygmy is gregarious. You’ll typically see small flocks, where red-breasted nuthatches may only appear in groups of one to four.

White-breasted nuthatches mate for life, so are generally solitary or in pairs. Study the differences in these three species and make it a goal to see all three together in the same habitat! Hint: Mingus Mountain.

In the meantime, look for the white-breasted nuthatch in just about any back yard in Prescott. They are a staple species across the country, one of the foundation species on which new birders begin building their internal libraries of birds.

The Prescott Audubon Society is an official chapter of the National Audubon Society. Check it out online at PrescottAudubon.org.