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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. 

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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