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The Nuthatch {Birds of Europe}

Updated on August 9, 2015

European nuthatch

Nuthatch Patrol Originally posted to Flickr transferred by MPF
Nuthatch Patrol Originally posted to Flickr transferred by MPF | Source


The European nuthatch belongs to the order of birds known as the Passeriformes {perching birds} and placed in the family Sittidae. The genus name Sitta derives from the Greek sitti meaning a nuthatch, the specific name of europaea means of Europe.

In the UK. The nuthatch is on the Green list of conservation concern {no current concerns} with 220,000 territories {summer 2009}. They occur in Europe and Asia in woods Forests and towns Source BTO.

In Europe they are not a species of conservation concern with an estmated overall population number of between 6.5-14 million pairs. the population numbers vary from country to country as for instance in Austria there are an estimated 200-400,000 breeding pairs, In Belgium 23,45,000 breeding pairs, Croatia, 500,000 -1 million breeding pairs. France 400,000 to 2 million breeding pairs, Germany 600,000-1,400,000 breeding pairs ,Spain 550,000 1,200,000 breeding pairs. and Ukraine 300,000-400,000 breeding pairs. {source Birdlife}.

Here we look at the species its habits and lifestyle,with notes and observations from past ornithologists and other eminent writers. As always we commence with a description of the subject under review.

Nuthatch and habitat

Crossley's ID to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID to Britain and Ireland. Richard Crossley | Source

Description of the European Nuthatch

The whole of the upper part of the nuthatch is of a pretty slate grey colour;the throat, breast and belly are buff,shading on the flanks,and under tail coverts to chestnut. From the base of the beak,past the eye and running to the back of the ear is a streak of black which separates the grey of the upper parts from the buff of the breast,gives character to its distinctive handsomeness.

The legs and claws are brown.The foot has three toes in front and one behind,which are especially adapted to aid in climbing for unlike the woodpecker it does not use its short tail for balance. The wings are relatively short, the tail is short and both are rounded. The white edging to the feathers of the tail are very noticeable when the bird is in flight.

The length of the bird is about five and a half inches {14 cm }. The male bird is regarded by some ornithologists as being more handsome than the female which has less bright chestnut brown on the flanks.However, they are almost impossible to tell apart in the field.

In relation to their body size the wings are short as are the tail and neck. The bill is medium/short and the legs medium/long. The flight is undulating. They climb up and down tree trunks with a jerky motion distinct from the tree creeper's movements. It is the only small bird that habitually comes down the tree trunk head first.{ The tree creeper does this but not as often}.

Although the birds keep exclusively to trees they do visit bird tables and feeders. The song is only heard in the breeding season and is slight and somewhat plaintive. However, more frequently heard is the call note which is a repeated somewhat harsh 'whit,-whit,-whit'

White breasted nuthatch

This fine image was taken in Algonquin Provincial Park Canada.
This fine image was taken in Algonquin Provincial Park Canada. | Source

Pygmy nuthatch

Crossley's ID Guide Eastern Birds  Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID Guide Eastern Birds Richard Crossley | Source

The family- Sittidae

The family Sittidae constitutes the nuthatches, small passerine birds characterized by their large heads, short tails and powerful bills and feet. Most nuthatches breed in the temperate or mountain woodlands in the northern hemisphere. In the USA and Canada the red-breasted nuthatch, Sitta canadensis,breeds in the coniferous of Canada,Alaska and the north eastern and western USA. The pygmy nuthatch Sitta pygmaea is another representative of the family. This tiny bird four inches {10 cm } long ranges from southern British Columbia, south through various discontinuous parts of the western US,{ north west US Sierra Nevada Range-southern Rockies} to central mexico. In the US the genus aklso has other representatives such as the brown-headed nuthatch S.pusilla and the White breasted nuthatch S, carolinensis {pictured above} In the UK the genus is represented by one species only, the one under review,

European nuthatch

Familiar Wild Birds 1883---Swaysland
Familiar Wild Birds 1883---Swaysland

General information and historical observations

Although this bird has a handsome plumage, the nuthatch is also more interesting in its habits. they are found in similar situations as the woodpecker and tree creeper.It has many tricks and manners,very different from those birds,particularly in the choice of food and the manner in which they obtain it.

This bird brought especial notice from the Rev Gilbert White,he having mentioned it in his famed book 'The Natural History of Selborne' { Southern England }. He refers within that book to his observations of watching a nuthatch obtaining a kernel from within a nut. The bird in White's locality was often referred to as the'jar-bird'; It also has other local names such as the'wood-cracker', and 'nutjobber'.

The birds are often encountered in pairs {which is also a trait of the woodpecker tribe},but are somewhat local in the choice of home. They usually inhabit woodland,plantations and parks and even well timbered gardens. Their food consists principally of nuts but they will also take corn and grain,acorns and beech mast. Insects such as beetles,caterpillars and other invertebrates and their larvae supplement their requirements.

The manner in which they obtain the kernel of the nut is very interesting to watch as White,observed.When a nut is procured it is wedged in a crevice in the bark, or in some convenient crack in a gate post or rail, and by continuous knocking with its hard bill, the most stubborn shell is cracked over a period of time. The kernel is then extracted. In the same manner as the squirrel, this bird often stockpiles nuts for a 'rainy day'. If the nuts are placed in the vicinity of their haunts the birds will find them, break the shells and eat them.

During this operation they make a rapping noise that often attracts one's attention. This activity of the bill striking the nut's shell can be heard very clearly in the quiet solitude of a wood. Stevenson,observes, respecting this species-- " Much amusement has been afforded me,after discovering their haunts ,placing huts or just the kernels in such situations as would enable me to watch the actions of these birds"

Coward in his boo 'Birds of Cheshire' 1900, conveys to us that the nuthatch is a very local resident and principally confined to the south west of Cheshire { the most southerly county in north west England} Dr. Dobie states that it nests in the Chester cemetery,as well as Eaton Park, where it is not uncommon. Elsewhere in the county it is very rare. Brockhole's does not include it in his list of Wirral birds and it is unknown in the eastern hills."

Since Coward wrote his book, the nuthatch has moved northwards and is now encountered in every northern county.Here in Lancashire the nuthatch may be encountered on a daily basis in suitable localities. Unlike many other species that are in decline the nuthatch has spread in distribution and those of us that love to see this handsome little bird may encounter it throughout the year.

You Tube courtesy of Paul Dinning

Illustration of a pair of Nuthatch

Birds of Europe ---Gould 1837
Birds of Europe ---Gould 1837

Nuthatch in captivity {historical reflections}

In the past catching birds for sale was a legal activity and bird catchers made a good living out of it. Wild birds are now fully protected by law. However, as is the case with many unacceptable things of the past it is part of our avian history. This section looks at historical observations and notes made by ornithologists and other eminent writers on the subject.

Swaysland, , states " There is scarcely an aviary more interesting that one that contains a nuthatch, some tits and a woodpecker.By their unflagging motions,-now creeping up, now crawling down the sides of the aviary- by their peculiar manner of taking food,and by their interesting vivacity, especially in the manner of stealing the nuts that the nuthatch has cracked, these birds will repay anyone who may be fond of keeping birds as pets."

Stevenson says " In confinement the young become very tame,and from their activity and quaintness in every movement are most engaging pets, but sadly destructive to woodwork within their reach.If constantly supplied with fresh bark,they never tire of searching each corner and crevice for insect food,clinging to it in every imaginable attitude with their short claws whilst beating with their beaks a very 'devil's tattoo, unpleasantly suggestive ,in its persistent hammering of the bark of the busiest moments of a coffin {casket} maker"

Butler claims -" As a cage bird the nuthatch is constantly increasing in popularity as the numbers now exhibited at our shows testify. When reared from the nest it becomes just as tame and confiding as the species of tits,running over and examining its owner in the same manner;but even adult birds caught wild,although at first show impatience of captivity after the manner of all tit-like birds do not {as Seebohm asserts} die on that account; "

" Perhaps if kept in a small cage the violent blows which they deal in their frantic rage at close confinement after liberty,may injure the front of the skull and thus probable death, but this is also the case with the great tit when similarly treated. The best plan with all these birds when first captured id to give them plenty of room in a box cage, the back of which should be covered by virgin cork,behind which {when alarmed}they may retire. For a or two it is well to cover the front of the cage with muslin,which renders all newly caught birds less liable to attempt escape in that direction;gradually accustom them to your presence,always offering delicacies until they learn to trust you;for as Lord Lifford says, ' The kernel of a hazel or ground nut is a tempting morel, and will tempt an old wild caught nuthatch to snatch it from your fingers very soon after capture."


Birds of Britain --Bonhote 1907 courtesy of the BHL.
Birds of Britain --Bonhote 1907 courtesy of the BHL.

Nest eggs and young of the nuthatch

The breeding season of this bird can be told by the fact,which is interesting to observe, the male chases the female up and down the trees in a courtship ritual. Soon a nesting location will be chosen and the business of raising their young will commence.

The nest of the nuthatch is placed in a hole in a tree or old stump. The nest is not very artistic, but if the entrance hole to the nest site is to large the bird will plaster the aperture with mud till it is a size that suits their requirements. In reference to this the bird was sometimes referred to as the 'mudstopper'. The nest itself is constructed of dry leaves,moss,bits of bark and wood,and occasionally a few dry bents have been encountered.

The eggs vary in number from 6-8 and are of an oval form,greyish white in colour ,but spotted,and even at times much blotched with reddish brown. They are similar to those produced by the great tit,but somewhat larger. The eggs are incubated by the female for a period of about 16 days. They are fed a nutritious diet of insects and their larvae and are ready to leave the nest in a further 24 days after hatching.

The young birds resemble their parents but are not so bright in colour and less handsome.

Nuthatch in a winter tree



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, they certainly are entertaining birds and I am sure it is only a matter of time before you capture the picture you want of the white breasted variety. Thank you for your visit,it is always good to see you here. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I have known both the Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches in the northeastern part of the US. Last year, I saw a white-breasted variety here in OK. Sadly, I could not get my camera adjusted quickly enough to get a shot. It will happen sooner or later. These are very quick and entertaining little souls. I have enjoyed their company a great deal.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Devika, they are handsome birds and their antic are a delight to watch. Thank for your vote up useful,beautiful,and interesting all of which are humbly appreciated. Best wishes to you.


      Hi, your welcome,and thank you for taking the time to visit and for leaving your kind comments. Best wishes to you.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for sharing the detailed information about nuthatches, D.A.L. I enjoyed learning about the lives of these birds and looking at the lovely pictures. Birds are such interesting animals!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      A small and so beautiful bird with such great characteristics. Voted up, useful and beautiful and always interesting.


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