Nuthatches are a small family of tree-bark specialists found throughout the Holarctic. The are well-known for their habit of foraging head downwards, searching the bark on tree trunks and large limbs. They can easily cling upside down as they search for insects, grubs, and seeds. It is a familiar posture, as shown by this White-breasted Nuthatch (left). All the nuthatches are similar in shape and behavior, and "once one is familiar with one species, all the others will be instantly recognized as nuthatches" (Harrap & Quinn 1995). Indeed, they are all assigned to a single genus (Sitta). The body is small and compact. They have a sturdy, pointed bill and short legs with strong toes and long claws. The feet are "scansorial," specially adapted for climbing and clinging. Two species of rock nuthatches in Eurasia feed in a similar fashion on rock faces.

In North America, White-breasted Nuthatch is a familiar bird. It clings to rough-barked trees from the eastern deciduous forest to the oak woodlands of California and up into the western mountains in yellow-pine forests. The species is primarily resident. In contrast, Red-breasted Nuthatch (below) summers in higher elevation coniferous forests and moves downslope in winter. In some years they stage very impressive winter flights into the lowlands and to the coast, where they often visit backyard feeders. This one (below) spent the winter feeding on sunflower seeds in our backyard on the Monterey Peninsula. But is some winters there are none here at all.

In North America, another set of nuthatches specialize in closed-cone pine forests. Brown-headed Nuthatch Sitta pusilla lives among the loblolly pine of the southeast, while Pygmy Nuthatch (right) thrives in the knobcone and related pine forests out west. In California there is a population in Monterey pine forests along the coast (the photographed bird is one of them) and a montane population in the Sierra Nevada and Rocky Mountains. These two populations have different calls. The ones on the coast sound to me like telegraph operations: dit-it dit did-it dit dit, etc. These nuthatches are quite small and have shorter bills used to pry among the closed cones of the pines. The birds are often seen high in the canopy, clinging to pine cones, and are restlessly on the move constantly in small family groups.

All nuthatches nest in cavities, usually holes in trees. The Pygmy Nuthatches in my back yard dig their own nest hole in the soft wood of dead pine trees. They have a cooperative breeding strategy that includes the paired adults and 1-3 young from previous broods (apparently young males; it is the young females that disperse). Nests with helpers have better breeding success than those without. The helpers join in feeding the young and defending the nesting territory (Roberson & Tenney 1993, Harrap & Quinn 1995).

The real center of nuthatch distribution is Asia, with 15 of the 25 species there. Quite a number are local and seldom photographed, including White-cheeked Nuthatch of western China (below left; race przewalskii) and Sulphur-billed Nuthatch, endemic to the Philippines (below right). The former has a curious distribution: a population in the western Himalayas and the one in China (perhaps two species?). The latter forages in mixed species flocks in montane and mid-elevation forests.
Some nuthatches have very restricted ranges: White-browed Nuthatch S. victoriae is found only in the Chin Hills of w. Burma; Corsican Nuthatch S. whiteheadi is restricted to Corsica; and Algerian Nuthatch S. ledanti is known from only 4 sites in northeast Algeria. The Beautiful Nuthatch S. formosa of northeast India, Burma, and s. China is rare and little known. So although it is a small family, and found almost entirely north of the Equator (some Indonesian populations of a couple species are south of the Equator), it is not at all easy to find all of the nuthatches. Fortunately, most have loud and diagnostic calls that makes locating them easier.

Nuthatches are related to northern creepers (Certhidae) and (more distantly) the tits and chickadees (Paridae); see Barker et al. (2004), Dickinson (2003). Thus they will likely remain in their familiar position among these families in any future revised world checklist.

Photos: The White-breasted Nuthatch  Sitta carolinensis was photographed at Lake Solano Park, Solano Co., California, on 15 Jan 2006. The Pygmy Nuthatch S. pygmaea was in my backyard in Pacific Grove, Monterey Co., California, on 3 Apr 2005, as was the Red-breasted Nuthatch  S. canadensis the day before. The White-cheeked Nuthatch  S. leucopsis was at Huzu, Qinghai Province, China, on 14 June 2004. The Sulphur-billed Nuthatch S. oenochlamys was above Hamut, Sierra Madres, northern Luzon, Philippines, on 3 Jan 2006. All photos © 2006 Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note

Family book: Rating 
Harrap, Simon, and David Quinn. 1995. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches & Treecreepers. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N. J.

This is a solid addition to the family books in the Princeton series. The plates appear separately in the front. I found the artwork rather good in a "field guide" style (without much background) opposite summary pages which include small maps. The maps I looked at were quite good). Distinct races are nicely covered. The text cover identification, habitat, breeding biology (very summarized), relationships, and detailed plumage descriptions, plus references which (in contrast to other similar efforts) look reasonably extensive. I don't personally see the need for the detailed plumage descriptions since no book like this can hope to cover the complete range of variation, and they are very tedious to read, but it is the "style" of these family books. There are some helpful extra maps and sketches of plumage details scattered in the text.
    I was a bit put off by the use of Sibley & Ahlquist (1990) family taxonomy (since subject to criticism) and the unnecessary "lumping" of the penduline tits with the "true" tits. On the other hand, the authors recommend following Sibley & Monroe's (1990) species level split of Tufted and Black-crested titmice, and give a full explanation for their opinion. This sort of in-depth treatment is admirable. They failed to anticipate the split of Oak and Juniper titmice, although they do discuss that possibility, and do give detailed separate treatment to the differing vocalizations. It is the quality of the text that prompts me to give this a "four-star" rating, just about as high of a rating that I'll give to this type of family book.
Other literature cited:
Barker, F.K., A. Cibois, P. Schikler, J. Feinstein, and J. Cracraft. 2004. Phylogeny and diversification of the largest avian radiation. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. 101: 11040-11045.

Dickinson, E., ed. 2003. The Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. 3d ed. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Roberson, D., and C. Tenney, eds. 1993. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Monterey County, California. Monterey Pen. Audubon Soc., Carmel, CA.

Sibley, C.G., and J.E. Ahlquist. 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds: A Study in Molecular Evolution. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.

Sibley, C.G., and B.L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.




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