Illustration by H. Douglas Pratt
Less gregarious than other nuthatches, the white-breasted nuthatch is typically seen singly or in pairs. In fall and winter, it regularly forms small mixed-species flocks, but a single flock rarely includes more than 6 white-breasteds. Commonly seen at bird feeders, the white-breasted is often first detected by its calls, which it frequently gives year-round. Polytypic. Length 5.8" (15 cm).
Identification The species has a black crown and nape that contrast with a white face and breast. Adult male: It has a uniformly black crown and nape. Upperparts are blue-gray, similar in color to the blue-gray wing edging. Females: they are duller than males; a paler crown often contrasts with a blacker nape; in the Southeast, the head pattern is more similar to the male’s, but it is still duller overall on average. Also note the brownish or grayish edging to the wing feathers. Immature: it resembles the adult, but its primaries, secondaries, and most wing coverts are brownish gray and lack the edging found on the adult (and contrast with mantle). It is difficult to age and sex, particularly by early spring.
Geographic Variation There are 9 subspecies of the white-breasted nuthatch in Mexico and North America, 5 of which occur north of the U.S.-Mexico border. All of the subspecies can be placed into 3 groups on the basis of plumage characteristics and calls. Songs appear to differ between the subspecies groups as well, but more study is needed. The 3 subspecies groups may constitute 3 separate species, but for now that question remains under review.
The “eastern” (or carolinensis) group consists of the nominate carolinensis, and includes the formerly recognized subspecies cookei. This is the palest subspecies group. The centers of the tertials and wing coverts are sharply defined, deep black, and contrast distinctly with blue-gray upperparts. The crown stripe is broader, the bill is thicker and shorter, and the underparts are whiter than in either western group. Their nasal calls (yank, yank) are classic, slow, low-pitched calls associated with most published descriptions of this species. (More information available in Complete Birds of North America.)
Similar Species The white face with an isolated dark eye is distinctive; all other species of nuthatches in North America have a more extensive dark crown or dark eye line.
Voice Call: varies between subspecies, but all give short, soft high inh notes when foraging; see sidebar below. Song: a series of repeated nasal whistles on one pitch: whi-whi-whi-whi-whi-whi. Similar in all populations.
Status and Distribution Fairly common. Breeding: a variety of deciduous and mixed-forest habitats, generally preferring relatively open woods. Dispersal and migration: poorly known. Does not undertake large-scale irruptions (unlike the red-breasted nuthatch), but white-breasteds in the Rockies regularly move onto the Great Plains, and some northern birds disperse. Found in southeastern Colorado (where it does not breed) early August–early May. Vagrant: Casual Vancouver Island, British Columbia; Sable Island, Nova Scotia; and offshore California (Santa Cruz Islands and the Farallones); 1 fall record for Bermuda.
Population Increasing or stable throughout much of range; populations thought to have declined in the Southeast.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
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