Identifying Pygmy Nuthatch and Brown-headed Nuthatch

Pygmy Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch, adult. January in Los Alamos County, New Mexico. Photo by Brian E. Small

In pine forests of the West, Pygmy Nuthatches are among the smallest songbirds and are often the most conspicuous. Active, acrobatic, highly social, these nuthatches clamber up, down, and around tree trunks and limbs, hop along branches, or dangle upside down from twigs. Usually in flocks of three to 10 individuals, they keep up almost a constant high-pitched piping. Often, they’re at the center of mixed flocks, with chickadees and others joining the roving nuthatch gangs.

Any discussion of Pygmy Nuthatch leads to a mention of its close relative, the Brown-headed Nuthatch. The two are so similar that in the past they occasionally were treated as one species. While the range of Pygmy Nuthatch extends north into western Canada and south into the mountains of Mexico, the Brown-headed is essentially restricted to the southeastern United States. 

Both nuthatches are strong habitat specialists, seldom seen away from pine forests. The range of Pygmy Nuthatch is practically defined by ponderosa pine and similar long-needled species. In the southeastern states, the Brown-headed has a choice of pine species, but it’s most common in old-growth pine forests with a relatively open understory. Both species require dead trees or limbs for their nest sites, so they don’t do well in young pine plantations.

Although both species are nonmigratory, both are known to stray outside their normal ranges. Pygmy Nuthatches sometimes wander onto the Great Plains and have been recorded as far east as Minnesota and Iowa. Brown-headed Nuthatches occasionally stray far north of their typical southern haunts and have reached northern Ohio and Illinois. Both have been recorded in eastern Kansas, and in Nebraska, both have been found at the exact same site — Holmes Lake — near Lincoln. So, it isn’t always possible to identify the species by range alone.

Visually, the two are quite similar. The Brown-headed has a distinctly browner cap, contrasting sharply with the gray of the back. Pygmy Nuthatch has a grayer cap, showing only slight contrast to the back color. In most of its range, Pygmy Nuthatch has a much stronger blackish mask or eyeline, distinctly set off from the grayish crown. This mark is less distinct in populations along the central and southern California coast, but these are extremely unlikely to show up any place where Brown-headed Nuthatch might occur.

The species also have different wing structures and patterns, as described in the photo captions. But callnotes are also helpful, and both species are very vocal. Both make a wide variety of peeping and chattering sounds, but those of Pygmy Nuthatch are sharper and feature series of single notes: peep peep or pip pip pip. Brown-headed Nuthatches frequently give a squeaky double note: peechew! A lone bird out of range is likely to respond to a recording of its own species, helping to clinch the identification.

What to look for

Size and shape. Very small, with compact, short-tailed shape typical of nuthatches.

Head pattern. Brownish gray crown coming down to a noticeable dark stripe through the eye, contrasting with a whitish throat. A white spot on the nape is sometimes visible.

Wing pattern. Mostly plain gray but with narrow whitish edges on the primaries, especially near the base, becoming less apparent in worn plumage (late spring and summer).

Tail pattern. White patches in the base of the short tail, sometimes noticeable in flight.

Brown-headed Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch, adult. February in Montgomery County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

True to its name, the Brown-headed Nuthatch has a cap of rich, warm brown, contrasting with the blue-gray of its back. The division between the brown cap and the white cheeks and throat may be set off by a darker line, but it’s usually not obvious. On this February Brown-headed, the wings already look somewhat worn, but even in fresh condition, they would not show the narrow but distinct white edges on the primaries that are typical of Pygmy Nuthatch. Brown-headed Nuthatch also has a longer wingtip, or primary extension, than Pygmy Nuthatch — the distance that the primaries extend past the tips of the tertials. It’s a subtle difference but visible in good photos like these.

Pygmy Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch, adult. March in Inyo County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

With a good view, the crown of Pygmy Nuthatch is clearly closer to gray than brown, but this can be hard to see on birds overhead in tall conifers. More evident at a distance is the smudgy blackish line through the eye. On this bird, note the narrow white edgings on some primaries, especially at the base, and the white in the outer tail feathers. Pygmy Nuthatch has more white in the tail than Brown-headed, and this can sometimes be seen in flight. A field mark that’s usually shown prominently in field guide illustrations of both Brown-headed and Pygmy Nuthatches is a white spot on the nape, but most of the time it’s not evident in the field.

Pygmy Nuthatch
Pygmy Nuthatch, adult. January in Los Alamos County, New Mexico. Photo by Brian E. Small

While individuals straying out of range can cause excitement (and ID challenges), the best places to see Pygmy Nuthatches are forests within their normal range, where we can simply enjoy the acrobatics of their spunky, noisy little flocks. They spend much of their time in the treetops, but their almost-constant piping chatter draws attention to their presence. In winter, they are almost always seen in flocks, and their roosting is a group behavior. Pairs, family groups, or flocks pack into cavities in trees for warmth overnight. Multiple flocks, foraging separately during the daytime, may come together in the evening. On a few occasions, more than 100 Pygmy Nuthatches have been found roosting in holes in a single tree.

Brown-headed Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch, adult. April in Montgomery County, Texas. Photo by Brian E. Small

While individuals straying out of range can cause excitement (and ID challenges), the best places to see Pygmy Nuthatches are forests within their normal range, where we can simply enjoy the acrobatics of their spunky, noisy little flocks. They spend much of their time in the treetops, but their almost-constant piping chatter draws attention to their presence. In winter, they are almost always seen in flocks, and their roosting is a group behavior. Pairs, family groups, or flocks pack into cavities in trees for warmth overnight. Multiple flocks, foraging separately during the daytime, may come together in the evening. On a few occasions, more than 100 Pygmy Nuthatches have been found roosting in holes in a single tree.

Helpful nuthatches

The regular presence of “helpers” at bird nests — additional adults or subadults that assist the breeding pair in caring for the young — is relatively rare among North American songbirds. But in both Pygmy and Brown-headed Nuthatches, breeding pairs have one or more helpers about 20 percent of the time, and in some populations, the rate is 40 percent or more.

These additional nuthatches do help in a variety of ways. The female of the breeding pair does all the incubation, but helpers take part in defending the territory, excavating the nest cavity, bringing food to the female while she’s incubating, and feeding the young birds in the nest and after they fledge.

Do helpers really help in a measurable way? It varies. Some studies found that pairs of nuthatches with helpers had higher success in fledging young. Other studies found no difference.

But why are the helpers there? One explanation is that helpers may be closely related to the breeding pair, so if they assist in raising more young, they’re indirectly passing along some of their own genes. In the case of Pygmy and Brown-headed Nuthatches, apparently there’s a skewed sex ratio, with far more males than females in the population — and the helpers are essentially all extra males. They may gain valuable practice in nesting duties while they wait to establish a territory and find a mate of their own.

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Kenn Kaufman

Kenn Kaufman

Kenn Kaufman is an expert birder and naturalist, a talented artist and photographer, a world traveler, and the author of many books about birds and other wildlife. His column “ID Tips” appears in every issue of BirdWatching. Kenn is also a field editor for Audubon Magazine and a contributor to Birds and Blooms. His work first appeared in Birder’s World (now BirdWatching) in April 1988. Visit his website, Kaufman Field Guides.

Kenn Kaufman on social media

Brian E. Small

Brian E. Small

Brian Small is a Los Angeles-based bird and nature photographer whose photos appear in the “ID Tips” column in every issue of BirdWatching. His work has been published in Time, The New York Times, Audubon, Nature Conservancy, National Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation, and many other publications. His photos also illustrate many field guides, including Kenn Kaufman’s Birds of North America, a series of state bird identification guides published with the American Birding Association, and his own Eastern and Western photographic field guides to the birds of North America published in 2009 with author Paul Sterry and Princeton University Press.

Brian E. Small on social media