Why the Brown-headed Nuthatch matters

Please welcome guest-blogger and Audubon North Carolina Bird-Friendly Communities Coordinator Kim Brand. Kim is a resident of Winston-Salem and a member of Forsyth Audubon. She launched Winston-Salem’s Lights Out program, and currently oversees the Bird Friendly Communities program for N.C. 

First and foremost, Brown-headed Nuthatches are fun to have around.

They are tiny - just 5 inches long. They're adorable, they like to scoot around upside-down, and they visit feeders to get sunflower seeds and suet. They can become quite friendly with humans and have been known to take mealworms from a person's hand during the breeding season.

Even their calls are cute, sounding just like a dog's squeaky toy.

And Brown-headed Nuthatches are relatively easy to find in North Carolina.

This nuthatch knows where to get an easy meal for baby nuthatches: from Rachel McLaughlin and her 89-year-old mother, Polly, who put out mealworms every afternoon during the breeding season. Photo by Lena Gallitano.

Second, North Carolina is home to 14 percent of the global population of Brown-headed Nuthatches: that's 160,000 birds in NC and 1.1 million in the world. Its entire range is the Southeastern United States - from Maryland south to Florida and west to eastern Texas - and a small, shrinking population on Grand Bahama Island.

Because it is concentrated in our region and also faces threats to its fire-dependent habitat (more about that later), Partners in Flight and the NC Wildlife Resources Commission consider the Brown-headed Nuthatch a responsibility species for North Carolina. Both of these organizations are focusing on species before they become critically imperiled. Once a species is identified as endangered (such as the Red-cockaded Woodpecker), it becomes much more difficult and costly to turn around population declines.

Though still common, the Brown-headed Nuthatch could sure use some help. After declining an average of 2.2 percent a year from 1966 to 1996, recent data from the Breeding Bird Survey are encouraging: Data from 2001 to 2011 show an increase of 1 percent a year range-wide and 2 percent a year in North Carolina.

But this bird requires mature pine trees for food and dead trees for nesting, typical of a landscape created by frequent wildfires over large areas. Unfortunately, human development and fire don’t mix; where people live, people suppress fire, making for fewer dead trees -- also called snags -- and fewer nesting opportunities for nuthatches. Also, fire suppression favors hardwood trees, allowing them to crowd out the pine trees nuthatches need for food. North Carolina expects unprecedented population growth of 3 million people in the next 20 years.

All these numbers add up to one thing: An opportunity for us to help keep a common bird common.

Fortunately, nuthatches will readily use a nest box instead of a snag. Dr. Mark Stanback at Davidson College has demonstrated just how readily: Brown-headed Nuthatches moved into 75 percent boxes he put up in Pinehurst-area golf courses earlier this year. So, the conservation of the Brown-headed Nuthatch is in the hands of the citizens of North Carolina! You can help keep this species common by simply putting up a nest box with a 1 1/8" hole. Nest boxes are easy to build, or you can order a pre-built one by contacting your local Audubon Chapter.

By helping keep the nuthatch common, we keep its ecological role -- eating beetle larvae, bark-dwelling cockroaches, and spiders, and "planting" new pine trees -- fulfilled.

Many birds are very difficult to help. They fly thousands of miles past lights, windows, cell towers, and cars. The nuthatch is a neighborhood bird you can help today. Help keep this unique bird common!

Recording by Andrew Spencer, accessed via www.xeno-canto.org