Energetic & Agile: The White-Breasted Nuthatch

A white-breasted nuthatch sits on a bare tree branch. The bird has a white belly and face, a black head and bluish-gray wings on its back and tail feathers.
A white-breasted nuthatch sits on a tree branch. (Photo: Amy Roell)

Although they are the largest of the birds in the nuthatch family, the white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) only measures between 5–6 inches and weighs less than 1.1 ounces! They are one of my favorite birds to see at our feeders. They’re common visitors, especially if those feeders hold big, meaty seeds such as sunflowers and peanuts! White-breasted nuthatches are also attracted to suet feeders.


These amazing birds are relatively easy to identify. White-breasted nuthatches have a grayish-blue color back with white faces and bellies. They have a black (sometimes gray) cap that makes it look like they are wearing a hood. They have a splash of chestnut brown on their lower belly and under their tail feathers.

The most striking characteristic is that white-breasted nuthatches can walk head-first up, down and sideways along a tree trunks and larger branches! When they stop, they do not lean back on their tail feathers as woodpeckers do. When they’re travelling up, down and sideways like this, they’re looking for seeds that have been jammed into the furrows of the bark, or insects taking refuge from the cold. White-breasted nuthatches are most often associated with mature woodlands dominated by deciduous trees, but they can just as easily be found in parks and neighborhoods with older trees.


White-breasted nuthatches tend to be territorial and stay paired with their partner all year long. During winter, they join up with flocks of chickadees and titmice. It is believed that these flocks make finding food easier and watching out for predators easier too. I have seen that play out in my yard every winter. I live within the City of Cincinnati limits, and there is a Cooper’s Hawk that frequents our neighborhood. You know when the Cooper’s Hawk is on the street because the flock of smaller birds disappears and things become very quiet!

A white-breasted nuthatch sits on the edge of a bird feeder, about to eat. The bird has a white belly and face, a black head and bluish-gray wings on its back and tail feathers.
A white-breasted nuthatch sits on the edge of a bird feeder. (Photo: Amy Roell)

White-breasted nuthatches are usually a little wary of feeders that tend to be a bit more exposed with little to no cover. But if the titmice go to it, the nuthatches seemingly think that it is OK and will use that feeder too!

One behavior to look for is a nuthatch making frequent quick trips to a feeder and then flying off. It will make you wonder how that tiny bird can eat all of that so quickly! Well, try and follow where it flies off to. You might just see the nuthatch hiding the seeds in the furrows of the bark of a tree to eat later. That is a common habit of these tiny birds.


On an early winter morning, a nuthatch sits on a log and has birdseed in its beak. The bird has a white belly and face, a black head and bluish-gray wings on its back and tail feathers.
Bird feed that has sunflowers and peanuts will attract white-breasted nuthatches.

In the spring, the pairs will look for a good nesting spot if they don’t already have one from previous years. They typically use tree cavities such as abandoned woodpecker holes. Sometimes they will use nest boxes, but those should have predator guards on them to add a level of protection to both the adults and young. The female will build the nest. First, she lines the cavity with things like fur, bark and even small clumps of dirt. On top of that layer, she will make a cup-shaped nest of finer and softer materials like thin, fine grass; shredded bark pieces and feathers.

Paired white-breasted nuthatches will have one brood per season, laying five to nine eggs. If those eggs make it to adulthood, they can be quite long-lived for such a small animal. The longest recorded lifespan for a white-breasted nuthatch is 9 years and 9 months! (For comparison, the average lifespan of white-breasted nuthatches is 2 years.)

The winter might feel long and cold, but if you look for these birds and other animals to watch and observe through these months, the season will go by fast! You might even discover some incredible things about the animals sharing your world with you!

Amy Roell
Director of Programming