The Fledging of the Brown-headed Nuthatches

Sitta pusilla


I was six years old and still a dog paddler.  As I stood on the diving tower my knees shook and the water, six feet below, seemed forbidding.  My older brother and sisters begged me to jump but I couldn’t take the plunge.  My father, apparently losing patience, gave me a firm nudge and I fell.  Reaching out for the tower I was able to grab a support and clung there for a few more seconds before falling the remaining three feet into the lake.  I lived.

Parent with brown head, juvenile with grayer head

My son was also six when I ran down the road behind him, holding the seat of his new 20-inch two wheeler.  He was game but his balance was precarious and I was reluctant to let go.  But our rural road was straight and the only potential obstacle was our neighbor’s mailbox 100 feet ahead.  I let go and he was on his own and doing fine.  But that darn mailbox loomed large and Murphy’s Law was upheld again.  It was a direct hit.  He also lived.

These were my thoughts as Suzanne and I sat with Mary and Gene on their porch, sipped wine, and watched the Brown-headed Nuthatches (BHNH) fledge from their Bluebird house.  Mary had called us, all excited, as she sensed that the big moment had arrived.  I was immersed in household projects and reluctant to drop them, but my wife “egged me on”.  I grabbed the camera and we arrived just in the nick of time.


The first fledgling was purposeful and bold; stuck his head out the hole, surveyed the landscape, and quickly launched himself into the new world.  I can just picture him (or her) as the dominant chick of the clutch, perhaps standing on the backs and heads of the others in the crowded box to get more than his fair share of the food.  His siblings were likely relieved to see him go.

#2 clinging for dear life as parent and #3 look on

Number two was a completely different story, poking his head out and withdrawing it several times.  When he finally left the hole he clung to the side of the house before scampering back inside, just to start the process all over again.  One time he lost his grip and fell down to the metal snake guard below the house.  A parent, reminiscent of my father and the diving tower incident, finally had enough of this and pushed the timid chick into the wild.  Each fledgling’s initial short flight was to the nearby loblollies, apparently a favorite tree for the species.

Pygmy nuthatch, Sitta pygmaea

This nuthatch, along with the similar west coast Pygmy nuthatch are smaller than the related White-breasted and Red-breasted birds of the same genus.  The brown head is distinctive and its call is comical.  If you hear a Rubber Ducky in your pine tree you’ll know you’ve found a BHNH.  We Delmarva birders are lucky to be just within the range of this bird, which extends south to northern Florida and west as far as Texas.

Red-breasted nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

The social BHNHs are often found in small groups, often with young males assisting with the feeding chores.  The breeding pair are monogamous, at least for the breeding season, and bring just one brood into the world each year.  This clever bird is one of the few avian tool-users, known to use a small piece of bark to dislodge insects from the tree.  The non-migratory BHNH will also visit a feeder for sunflower seeds, especially in the cooler months.

White-breasted nuthatch, Sitta carolinensis

Gene and Mary have created a wonderful avian habitat on their narrow tidal creek of the Chesapeake Bay.  We first met this erstwhile urban couple years ago when they had just recently left the city and moved to our rural Eastern Shore.  They quickly learned the local flora and fauna and have become astute observers and conservers of the land.  Their beautiful yard is bordered by stands of pines and hollies with sizable areas of wildflowers and gardens extending down to the tidal grasses at the shoreline.  Scattered birdhouses and feeders are carefully maintained and Mary keeps a log of the comings and goings of the wildlife.  This spring the nuthatches were the primo attraction.

Juvenile and parent BHNH

She first noticed the seven eggs in the Bluebird house on April 6, thinking they were likely the work of Carolina chickadees.  But by  4/13 she noticed the busy BHNH parents at the site and the hen incubating the eggs.  They hatched on 4/21 and fledged right on schedule 18 days later.  These birds are cavity nesters, usually in old woodpecker holes, but are also known to inhabit birdhouses on occasion.

#3 & #4

Numbers 3 and 4 seemed to take a team approach to fledging.  Both heads and bodies squeezed together into the birdhouse exit, seemingly encouraging each other to attempt the flight to the nearby loblolly.  We did not observe the other three fledglings but Mary reported that the box was empty and quiet the next morning.  I suspect for a few short days the parents will assist the fledglings with feeding but soon they will be on their own; sink or swim.  If lucky they may achieve a life span approaching eight years.

Parent, showing how it’s done

What must it be like for the new nuthatches?  Leaving the warm, safe confines of the 6X6X15 inch box and launching themselves into a vast universe of entirely new sights, sounds and dangers.  Think of your first day of school, or perhaps your first date or kiss. What about that first piano recital or being left alone for the first time at summer camp.  Even these can hardly compare to nuthatches’ first flights at only 18 days of age.  And we certainly did not have a crowd of curious spectators aiming those binoculars and that long telephoto lens at us during our debut.  The fledglings were truly a sight to behold and so far, they too have lived.