The name Nuthatch probably results from the corruption of the word “nuthack” which refers to its habit of hacking away at a seed with its beak until the seed opens.
Brown-headed and Pygmy Nuthatches favor living among pine trees; Red-breasted Nuthatches specialize in spruce and fir trees, and White-breasted Nuthatches favor mature deciduous forests.
White-breasted Nuthatches will often store seeds for retrieval later in the same day or as a quick source of food for the next morning.
The White-breasted Nuthatch is a common bird of deciduous forests and wooded urban areas. Known as the “upside down” bird, it is often observed creeping headfirst down tree trunks while searching cracks and crevices for insect food.
A nuthatch’s foot has one big toe (the hallux) that faces backward, while its other three toes face forward. It is able to walk head first down the trunks of trees by moving only one foot at a time while the hallux toe on the other foot holds firmly to the bark.
The White-breasted and Red-breasted Nuthatches are common visitors of bird feeders. The bird typically takes a single sunflower seed and fly to a nearby tree, wedge the seed into the bark, and hacks it open with repeated blows from its bill.
In a study of the White-breasted Nuthatch's seed caching behavior; it was found that they selected unshelled sunflower seeds approximately 25% more often than seeds still in the shell. It appears that this preference is driven by the fact that it takes the Nuthatch about half the time to transport and cache an unshelled seed than it does a shelled one.
Nuthatches are monogamous and defend a territory throughout the year. The female White-breasted Nuthatch rarely strays far from her mate and stays in constant vocal contact when they are more than a few yards apart.
Male White-breasted Nuthatches are less wary of danger when foraging with their mates than when they are alone. The female mate plays the dominant role as "watchdog" when they are together, leaving the male more time to concentrate on hunting for food.
During the winter, White-breasted Nuthatches will often forage together with other birds such as titmice, chickadees, and Downy Woodpeckers in a group known as a foraging guild. Nuthatches are able to recognize the alarm calls of these species and can thus reduce their own level of alertness by relying on vigilance of these other species. This leaves them with more time to concentrate on finding food.
White-breasted Nuthatches are bolder and braver when they forage together with chickadees and titmice than when they are foraging alone. A study determined that they are much more reluctant to come to exposed feeders when they were alone than when they are accompanied by titmice. The nuthatch apparently feels more secure when a vigilant titmouse is along to serve as a watchdog and scout.
The White-breasted Nuthatch is known to bill-sweep a crushed insect around their nest cavity's entrance hole. Presumably to deter predators with the chemical-defense mechanisms from the insect.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch will line the entrance to its nesting cavity with drops of sticky conifer resin. It is thought that this may be a tactic to discourage predators or nest competitors from entering the cavity. The nuthatches avoid the resin themselves by diving directly into the nesting cavity without ever touching the sides of the entry hole.
The Red-breasted Nuthatch is a very aggressive defender of its nesting cavity, especially during the building period. It chases away much larger birds such as the Downy Woodpecker and has been observed bullying the very aggressive House Wren.
When natural food supplies are scarce in northern Canada, numerous species of birds will “irrupt” into a southern migration in search of food. Red-breasted Nuthatches are typically the earliest species to head south for the winter, leaving as early as mid-summer and settling into their new southern winter territories by the end of September.
The Pygmy Nuthatch is the only songbird that uses three different survival techniques simultaneously in order to endure cold winter nights. It roosts inside a protected tree cavity where it huddles together in a communal group with other nuthatches and it conserves energy by lowering its metabolism and body temperature.
Pygmy Nuthatches have never been observed to roost alone. They will always roost at night in a communal group which may contain up to 100 birds. This tightly packed mass of birds can warm the roosting cavity by 40° F or more over the outside temperature.
A Pygmy Nuthatch’s diet switches from eating mostly insects and spiders in the summer to primarily eating seeds in the winter. It visits feeders where its favorite foods are sunflower seeds and suet.
Pygmy and Brown-headed Nuthatches are two of the few North America bird species known to breed cooperatively. A third of all breeding pairs of Pygmy Nuthatches have one to three male helpers, usually their own offspring or other relatives. Studies of the Brown-headed Nuthatch show that between 20-60% of breeding pairs has at least one helper. These helpers assist in feeding the incubating female, the nestlings and the young fledglings.
Pygmy Nuthatches can stay in their roost cavity for as long as 40 hours without feeding, enabling them to survive short periods of very severe winter weather.
Brown-headed Nuthatches prefer to reside in open, mature, old growth pine forests, especially in stands that have been recently burned.
Found almost exclusively in the pine forests of the southeastern states, the completely non-migratory Brown-headed Nuthatch can only be found outside of the United States, in very small numbers, on an island in the Bahamas.
The Brown-headed Nuthatch is one of the few birds known to use a “tool” to find food. It will take a loose flake of pine bark in its bill and use it to pry up other scales of bark in search of prey.
The longevity records for nuthatches recaptured in the wild are: