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Art Lander’s Outdoors: A gravity-defying busy little bird, the White-breasted Nuthatch puts on a show

Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a series about small songbirds most often seen around bird feeders in rural and suburban areas of Kentucky during the late fall and winter.

The White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is a gravity-defying, busy little bird.

Hang your bird feeder, or suet cage, off a mature hardwood tree, and sit back and enjoy the show.

The White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) is a gravity-defying, busy little bird that’s fun to watch at the backyard bird feeder. (Photo provided)

This acrobatic tree climber is on the move non-stop, quickly going up and down a tree trunk or vertical limb, darting to the feeder for a black oil sunflower seed, or beak full of suet.

Then it’s back to the tree, to cache the morsel in a crevice in the bark, and hack away at it with their strong bill.

This industrious little bird never seems to take a break.

Size and Coloration

For its small size, about five inches head to tail and weighing less than an ounce, the White-breasted Nuthatch has a stocky build — a large head, short legs with strong toes and long claws, compressed wings, a square 12-feathered tail, and a long, sturdy, pointed bill.

The two sexes are difficult to differentiate in the field. The female has plumage that is a bit duller and paler.

Both sexes have a white face and breast, with dark eyes, a gray bill, and black/dark gray cap.

Their backs are pale blue-gray, with a black band. The lower belly is chestnut colored.

The adult male’s wing coverts (covering feathers) and flight feathers are very dark gray with paler fringes. The closed wing is pale gray and black, with a thin white wing bar.

The outer tail feathers are black with broad diagonal white bands across the outer three feathers, a feature readily visible in flight.

There are nine subspecies that differ mainly by plumage coloration.

Range and Distribution

The White-breasted Nuthatch is a permanent, year-round resident of Kentucky that varies in abundance across the state, according to The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, by Brainard Palmer-Ball Jr.

A permanent, year-round resident of Kentucky, the White-breasted Nuthatch varies in abundance across the state. (Photo by Suzanne Britton)

Most numerous in the lowland forests of Central and Western Kentucky, the White-breasted Nuthatch is less common in the highlands of the Cumberland Plateau and Cumberland Mountains.

Its breeding range in North America includes the Lower 48 states, parts of southern Canada, and Mexico

Its greatest abundance is from Maine to Minnesota, south to eastern Texas, Arkansas, and Georgia, and up the Atlantic coast, but scarce or absent from Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana.

The White-breasted Nuthatch is a member of family Sittidae. All members of the family share the genus Sitta. World-wide, the nuthatch family is most diverse in southern Asia.


In Kentucky this nuthatch lives in mature or old-growth hardwood forests, woodlots, wooded suburbs and parks, with groves of large shade trees, also woodland edges, along rivers and highways.

Throughout its continental range, the White-breasted Nuthatch avoids softwood (pine) forests.

Food Habits

The White-breasted Nuthatch is omnivorous.

Its diet is insects and spiders during summer, supplemented by seeds in the winter.

At the backyard bird feeder the White-breasted Nuthatch prefers black oil sunflower seeds, and suet mixtures with seeds and berries.

During the summer it is often observed foraging for insects, moving quickly head-first down the trunks and branches of large trees.

Reproduction and Nesting

White-breasted Nuthatch are cavity nesters, raising their young in a natural tree cavity or old woodpecker hole. (Photo by Ronald Grogan)

Pairs remain together on nesting territory year-round.

Courtship behavior begins in late winter. In a courtship display, the male raises his head, spreads his tail feathers, droops his wings, sways back and forth, and bows deeply. He also brings food to his mate during this time.

They are cavity nesters, raising their young in a natural tree cavity or old woodpecker hole, 15 to 20 feet or higher, usually in the woods, or along the forest edge.

The breeding pair may smear insects around the entrance to their nest since chemical secretions of insects repel squirrels and other predators.

The female builds the nest, with a foundation of twigs, grasses, rootlets, and animal hair.

In Kentucky, nest building begins in late March or early April, with clutches of eggs laid by mid-May.

The clutch is about eight white eggs, spotted with reddish-brown. The female incubates the eggs, and the male feeds her while she is on the nest. Incubation lasts about 12 to 14 days.

Both parents feed the young a diet of insects and spiders.

The young leave the nest in about three weeks. Pairs raise one brood per year.

The White-breasted Nuthatch’s busy feeding routine is fun to watch at the backyard bird feeder. They move with ease up and down nearby trees, defying gravity, while hammering away at seeds stashed in the crevices of the tree bark.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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