Have you ever heard an agitated “squeaky-toy” sound in the pines?
Sort of like if your Labrador retriever puppy recently discovered it could repeatedly make a delightful sound by chomping a blue plastic hedgehog or a rubber ducky, and the pup has just learned how to climb to the top of a pine tree?
If so, you have heard the Brown-headed Nuthatch.
These tiny birds, which live in pine stands throughout the Southeastern U.S., are heard as often as seen … and their “wee-yah, wee-yah, wee-yah” call does sound amazingly like a squeaky dog toy. They also make a “queet” call and a high-pitched burbling chatter.
Brown-headed Nuthatches – scientific name Sitta pusilla – are fascinating birds: They chatter incessantly and are always on the move. They raise their young with the mother, father and sometimes friends helping, and they are one of the few birds known to use tools.
They also thrive in the pine trees around Lake Martin.
In fact, Brown-headed Nuthatches are native to the Southeast from east Texas to southern Virginia, but their range doesn’t go very far north. It covers all of Louisiana and southern Arkansas; all but the northern-most edges of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia; most of Florida, except for the southern tip of the state; most of the Carolinas, except the western-most areas, and the southern-most parts of Virginia and Maryland.
Brown-headed Nuthatches are very small. These birds and their West Coast cousins – Pygmy Nuthatches that you might remember from the Charlie’s Angels movie – are about the same size and are the smallest of the world’s 24 nuthatch species. Full grown, these tiny birds tip the scales at between 1/3 and 1/2 ounce. They measure 3.5 to 4.3 inches from beak to the end of their short tails with wingspans of 6.5 to 7 inches or so.
Both males and females look alike. Each bird wears a brown cap, and a very thin black line of feathers stretches from the rear edge of the beak through the eye and behind. The underside of the bird – from chin to belly – is off-white, and its wings are a color of gray that tends toward gray-blue. It also has a very small patch of white feathers on the back of the neck. Its beak is dark gray and is pointed like a tiny nail, and the bird’s feet are also gray.
Brown-headed Nuthatches move constantly, and their strong legs and large hind-toes allow them to do so in surprising ways. They can walk up vertical tree trunks, or down headfirst, or even upside-down on the undersides of branches. For that reason, some birdwatchers use this bird’s nickname, “upside-down bird” to help identify it.
These nuthatches are very social birds, calling to each other constantly while foraging pines in groups. They are often seen flying between trees in single-file.
Their social skills extend to people as well, as nuthatches often go about their business when humans are nearby.
In winter months, they are known to join in other groups of southeastern pine forest foragers, like chickadees, Pine Warblers and woodpeckers, as they move through the woods en masse hunting for food.
Brown-headed Nuthatches eat mostly insects and seeds, mostly pine seeds found in pinecones. To root out the insects, these remarkable birds have developed a habit of using tools, like small pieces of wood or bark, as levers to pry up pine bark. If a Brown-headed Nuthatch finds a good tool, it will carry it from one tree to another to keep using it.
Nuthatches are also known to hide seeds in the cracks between plates of pine bark and cover their food with debris to hide it from other animals. Brown-headed Nuthatches don’t just prowl the trees, they have also been recorded catching flying insects in mid-air.
In early spring, these birds mate and start looking for places to build nests. Both males and females work to build the nest, either taking over an existing hole in a tree or birdhouse or excavating their own together, usually in a dead pine trunk. The pair photographed for this article engaged in a weeklong battle with Eastern Bluebirds over the possession of this birdhouse. At times, the nuthatch would go inside, and a bluebird would stand outside, poking its head in the entrance and scolding the nuthatch. Eventually, the smaller, feistier bird won out.
Inside their nesting hole, Brown-headed Nuthatches build their nests with whatever materials they can find, including grass, feathers, pieces of bark, hair and other small fibers.
In the Lake Martin area, the female lays five or six white eggs with reddish-brown markings. The male will bring food to the female as she sits on the eggs, and he also will bunk up in the nest with her at night. In two weeks, the eggs hatch out, and both parents go to work bringing food to the chicks. At times, unpaired male and female Brown-headed Nuthatches will serve as “nannies” and will assist the parents with finding food and delivering it to the chicks. In 18-19 days, the chicks fledge. Most years, Brown-headed Nuthatches only have one brood, but they sometimes have been known to have two.
The oldest Brown-headed Nuthatch ever recorded in the wild was banded in Alabama in 1954 and recaptured in 1960, with the lapsed time between the two events clocking five years, nine months.
These feisty birds are known to respond to humans imitating the call of a screech-owl by flying directly at the callers, within inches of their faces, while most other birds fly away.
Brown-headed Nuthatches are dependent on the southern pine forest, and as cities have grown and pine forests have been cut and logged, they have lost habitat. For the past 35 years, their population has dropped about 2 percent per year, a total 45 percent reduction in population.