Overview

Brief Summary

The White-breasted Nutchatch (Sitta carolinensis) is a year-round resident over much of North America from southwestern Canada to the highlands of southern Mexico. This bird is a familiar visitor to bird feeders supplying suet or sunflower seeds, which it may fly off with to hide in crevices. The nasal calls of the White-breasted Nuthatch are a familiar sound throughout much of North America. White-breasted Nuthatches are typically found in deciduous and mixed forest, the Red-breasted Nutchatch (Sitta candensis) being more associated with conifer forests. White-breasted Nutchatches feed mainly on insects, but also take seeds (proportion of seeds in the diet may range from none in summer to more than 60% in winter). Young are fed entirely on insects and spiders. White-breasted Nuthatches forage mainly on trunks and larger limbs of trees and are often seen moving head-down down a tree trunk. During fall and winter, these nuthatches often cache food in bark crevices on their territory.

Pairs remain together on the nesting territory year-round and may mate for life. In his courtship display, which may be seen beginning in late winter, the male raises his head, spreads his tail, droops his wings, sways back and forth, and bows deeply. The male also performs much courtship feeding of the female.

White-breasted Nuthatches usually nest in large natural cavities or old woodpecker cavities, typically around 5 to 20 m above the ground. The nest, built by the female, is a simple cup of bark fibers, grasses, twigs, and hair. The usual clutch size is 5 to 9 eggs. The eggs, which are white with reddish brown spots, are incubated for 12 to 14 days by the female, who is fed on the nest by her mate. Young are fed by both parents.

Differences in vocalizations, morphology, and ecology among Pacific coast, interior montane, and eastern populations may indicate three or four distinct species (see Spellman and Klicka 2007; Walstrom et al. 2012).

(Kaufman 1996; AOU 1998; Spellman and Klicka 2007; Walstrom et al. 2012)

  • American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-list of North American Birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
  • Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin, Boston
  • Spellman, G.M. and J. Klicka. 2007. Phylogeography of the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis): diversification in North American pine and oak woodlands. Molecular Ecology 16:1729-1740.
  • Walstrom, V.W., J. Klicka, and G.M. Spellman. 2012. Speciation in the White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis): a multilocus perspective. Molecular Ecology 21: 907-920.
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Distribution

Global Range: Resident from Washington and southern British Columbia to southern Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, south to Baja California, southeastern Arizona, southern Mexican highlands, Gulf Coast, and northern Florida; absent from most of Great Plains.

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White-breasted nuthatches reside throughout most of North America, including the continental United States, southern regions of Canada, and central Mexico.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )

  • Pravosudov, V., T. Grubb. 1993. White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). Pp. 1-16 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 54. Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
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occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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National Distribution

Canada

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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Geographic Range

White-breasted nuthatches reside throughout most of North America, including the continental United States, southern regions of Canada, and central Mexico.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )

  • Pravosudov, V., T. Grubb. 1993. White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta_carolinensis). Pp. 1-16 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 54. Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
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Physical Description

Morphology

The long bills of white-breasted nuthatches distinguish them from other nuthatches. Their bills are nearly as long as their heads and are slightly upturned. White-breasted nuthatches have black crowns on their heads, with white cheeks and white undersides. Their undersides have a slightly rosy region towards the tail. A nuthatch's back is a bluish-gray. Their wings and tails are a mixture of white, black, and bluish-gray. Males tend to be slightly more vivdly colored than females, with the dark parts of their plumage being very dark and contrasting with their light plumage. Females tend to be somewhat more gray overall. Very little research has been done on these birds but it is known that they weigh on average 20 g and are about 15 cm long.

Average mass: 20 g.

Average length: 15 cm.

Sexual Dimorphism: male more colorful

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry

Average mass: 20.5 g.

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Physical Description

White-breasted nuthatches are small birds that can often be spotted climbing up and down the trunks of trees. Their long bills make them easy to identify. Their bills are nearly as long as their heads and are curved slightly upward. White-breasted nuthatches have black crowns on their heads, with white cheeks and white undersides. Their belies have a slightly pinkish region towards the tail. A nuthatch's back is bluish-gray. Their wings and tails are a mixture of white, black, and bluish-gray. Males tend to be slightly more brightly colored than females, with the dark parts of their plumage being very dark and contrasting with their light plumage. Females are more grayish overall. Very little research has been done on these birds but we know that they weigh about 20 g and are about 15 cm long.

Average mass: 20 g.

Average length: 15 cm.

Sexual Dimorphism: male more colorful

Average mass: 20.5 g.

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Size

Length: 15 cm

Weight: 21 grams

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Ecology

Habitat

Sierra Juarez and San Pedro Martir pine-oak forests Habitat

This taxon can be found in the Sierra Juarez and San Pedro Martir pine-oak forests. The ecoregion is located in two mountain ranges in the state of Baja California, Mexico: the Sierra de Juarez and the Sierra de San Pedro Martir. Both mountain ranges belong to the physiographical province of Baja California, and constitute the northernmost elevated peaks of the Baja Peninsula. The mountainous range that descends into a large portion of Baja California becomes more abrupt at Juarez and San Pedro Martir; the eastern slope is steeper than the western. Altitudes range between 1100-2800 meters. The granitic mountains of Juarez and San Pedro Martir have young rocky soils and are poorly developed, shallow, and low in organic matter.

Dominant trees in the ecoregion are: Pinus quadrifolia, P. jeffreyi, P. contorta, P. lambertiana, Abies concolor, and Libocedrus decurren. The herbaceous stratum is formed by Bromus sp. and Artemisia tridentata. Epiphytes and fungi are abundant throughout the forests.

Characteristic mammals of the ecoregion include: Ornate shrew (Sorex ornatus), Puma (Puma concolor), Fringed Myotis bat (Myotis thysanodes), California chipmunk (Tamias obscurus), Bobcat (Lynx rufus), Coyote (Canis latrans), San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis) and Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis).

Numerous birds are present in the ecoregion, including the rare Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), Pinyon jay (Gymnohinus cyanocephalus), and White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis).

A number of different reptilian taxa are found in these oak-pine forests; representative reptiles here are: the Banded rock lizard (Petrosaurus mearnsi); Common checkered whiptail (Cnemidophorus tesselatus), who is found in sparsely vegetated areas; Coast horned lizard (Phrynosoma coronatum), often found in locales of sandy soil, where individuals may burrow to escape surface heat; Night desert lizard (Xantusia vigilis), who is often found among bases of yucca, agaves and cacti; and the Baja California spiny lizard (Sceloporus zosteromus).

The Pacific chorus frog (Pseudacris regilla) is an anuran found within the Sierra Juarez and San Pedro Martir pine-oak forests as one of its western North America ecoregions of occurrence. The only other amphibian in the ecoregion is the Western toad (Anaxyrus boreas).

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White-breasted nuthatches live in deciduous woodlands and mixed deciduous and coniferous forests. They prefer, older, more mature hardwood forests and may require the presence of oak trees. White-breasted nuthatches are also common visitors to backyard birdfeeders.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: forest

Other Habitat Features: suburban

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Habitat and Ecology

Systems
  • Terrestrial
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Comments: Most frequent in open woodlands of mature trees (primarily oak or pine); pinyon-juniper, clearings, forest edge, parks, and partly open situations with scattered trees (AOU 1983). Nests in natural tree cavity, old woodpecker hole, bird house, usually about 5-15 m above ground.

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White-breasted nuthatches live in deciduous woodlands and mixed deciduous and coniferous forests. They prefer, older, more mature hardwood forests and may require the presence of oak trees. White-breasted nuthatches are also common visitors to backyard birdfeeders.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: forest

Other Habitat Features: suburban

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Migration

Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: No. No populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

May retreat in winter from northernmost range and higher elevations (NGS 1983).

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Trophic Strategy

Nuthatches get their name from their habit of placing large seeds and nuts in crevices of trees and then prying them open with their bills. Nuthatches also probe crevices along tree trunks and limbs for smaller seeds and insects. They store seeds in loose bark or crevices. The percentage of seed and insect food varies with the season. One study found the diet included 68% seed in winter, 48% seed in spring, no seed in summer (100% insects), and 29% seed in fall. The insect foods eaten by white-breasted nuthatches include such species as weevils, tent caterpillars, ants, scale insects, psyllids, wood borers, and leaf beetles.

Animal Foods: insects

Plant Foods: seeds, grains, and nuts

Foraging Behavior: stores or caches food

Primary Diet: omnivore

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Comments: Eats mainly nuts and seeds in fall and winter, insects in spring and summer; forages on trunks and main branches of trees (Terres 1980). Scatterhoards surplus food.

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Food Habits

Nuthatches get their name from their habit of placing large seeds and nuts into crevices of trees and then prying them open with their bills. They also used their bill to probe crevices along tree trunks and limbs for smaller seeds and insects. They store extra seeds in loose bark or crevices to eat later. The amount of seeds and insects that white-breasted nuthatches eat changes with the seasons. In the summer, white-breasted nuthatches eat only insects. In the winter and early spring, when there are not many insects available, white-breasted nuthatches eat more seeds. The insects that white-breasted nuthatches eat include weevils, Lepidoptera, Formicidae, Homoptera, psyllids, wood borers, and Coleoptera.

Animal Foods: insects

Plant Foods: seeds, grains, and nuts

Foraging Behavior: stores or caches food

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Associations

White-breasted nuthatches help to control insect populations in the summer. They also disperse the seeds of many plants.

Ecosystem Impact: disperses seeds

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Predators of adults are most likely hawks and owls. Nestlings and eggs are eaten by woodpeckers, small squirrels, and climbing snakes, such as smooth green snakes. White-breasted nuthatches respond to predators near their nest by pecking and flicking their wings while making "hn-hn" noises. They also use a piece of fur or vegetation to wipe around their nest opening when they leave the nest. This covers up their scent and keeps squirrels and other predators from using smell to find their nests.

Known Predators:

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Ecosystem Roles

White-breasted nuthatches help to control insect populations in the summer. They also disperse the seeds of many plants.

Ecosystem Impact: disperses seeds

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Predation

Predators of adults are most likely Accipitridae and Strigiformes. Nestlings and eggs are eaten by Piciformes, small Sciuridae, and climbing snakes, such as Opheodrys vernalis. White-breasted nuthatches respond to predators near their nest by pecking and flicking their wings while making "hn-hn" noises. They also use a piece of fur or vegetation to wipe around their nest opening when they leave the nest. This covers up their scent and keeps squirrels and other predators from using smell to find their nests.

Known Predators:

  • hawks (Accipitridae)
  • owls (Strigiformes)
  • woodpeckers (Piciformes)
  • squirrels (Sciuridae)
  • climbing snakes (Serpentes)

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Known prey organisms

Sitta carolinensis (white-breasted nuthatch) preys on:
Auchenorrhyncha
Sternorrhyncha
wood-borers
Curculionidae
Arachnida

Based on studies in:
USA: Illinois (Forest)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • A. C. Twomey, The bird population of an elm-maple forest with special reference to aspection, territorialism, and coactions, Ecol. Monogr. 15(2):175-205, from p. 202 (1945).
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General Ecology

Forages in mated pairs; maintains year-round territory. Resident pairs stayed together on feeding territory of 10-20 ha throughout year in one study (Terres 1980). 3-16 breeding pairs per 40 ha in northern Arizona forest (Brawn and Balda 1988).

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

White-breasted nuthatches communicate using vocalizations and visual cues. They are generally quiet during the summer and their breeding season. They vocalize most during the very early spring and the winter. White-breasted nuthatches sing several different songs, each consisting of several notes. Most of their songs are used for territorial defense and assertion. There are 13 different calls known at this time: Hit and tuck, Tchup, Quank, Quank quank, rapid quank, rough quank, Chrr, Phee-oo, Squeal, Brr-a and Whine. Each call has a different purpose. White-breasted Nuthatches also have very good vision.

Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Communication and Perception

White-breasted nuthatches communicate using songs and body signals. They are usually quiet during the summer and during their breeding season. They sing and call most during the very early spring and the winter. White-breasted nuthatches sing several different songs, each consisting of several notes. Most of their songs are used to defend their territory. Scientists have counted 13 different calls made by white-breasted nuthatches. Each call has a different purpose. White-breasted nuthatches also have very good eye sight.

Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic

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Life Expectancy

The estimated average lifespan of a white-breasted nuthatch is 2 years. The oldest known white-breasted nuthatch lived almost 10 years.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
10 years.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
2 years.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
118 months.

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Lifespan/Longevity

The estimated average lifespan of a white-breasted nuthatch is 2 years. The oldest known white-breasted nuthatch lived almost 10 years.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
10 years.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
2 years.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
118 months.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 9.8 years (wild)
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Reproduction

White-breasted nuthatches form monogamous pairs that remain together year-round from the time of courtship and establishment of a territory until one of the pair dies or disappears. Courtship in white-breasted nuthatches is composed of a breeding song sung by the males, distinctive call notes and courtship feeding.

Mating System: monogamous

The dates of nest-building, egg-laying, hatching, and young leaving the nest vary from region to region. Most breeding is done between early May and early June, but some populations show a range starting as early as April and even possibly going into July. White-breasted nuthatches raise one brood per year. Female white-breasted nuthatches build their nests alone. White-breasted nuthatches nest in cavities from 3 to 18 meters from the ground. The female lays 3 to 10 (typically 6 to 8) pinkish-white eggs. She then incubates the eggs for 12 to 14 days, and the male brings food to her in the nest cavity. The nestlings stay in the nest for 26 days before fledging. After fledging, the chicks remain with their parents for several weeks before they disperse. Both parents feed and protect them during this time. These young nuthatches leave their parent's territory to establish their own territories, usually in pairs, and breed the next spring.

Breeding interval: White-breasted nuthatches breed once per year.

Breeding season: The dates of nest-building, egg-laying, hatching, and young leaving the nest vary from region to region. Most breeding is done between early May and early June.

Range eggs per season: 3 to 10.

Average eggs per season: 7.

Range time to hatching: 12 to 14 days.

Average fledging age: 26 days.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 1 to 1 years.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 1 to 1 years.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous

Average eggs per season: 8.

The female builds the nest and incubates the eggs. Once the eggs have hatched, both parents feed and protect the young. Males tend to do most of the parental care in the first few days after hatching, but as the young become more independent, both parents share the job equally.

Parental Investment: pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-hatching/birth (Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female)

  • Pravosudov, V., T. Grubb. 1993. White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). Pp. 1-16 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 54. Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
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Clutch size is 5-10 (commonly 8). Incubation, by female, lasts about 12 days? Young are tended by both parents, leave nest at about 14 days, fed by parents for another 2 weeks.

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White-breasted nuthatches are monogamous (one male mates with one female). They form breeding pairs that that stay together year-round for years until one of the pair dies or disappears. Males sing a breeding song and do courtship feeding to try to attract a mate.

Mating System: monogamous

Most white-breasted nuthatches breed between early May and early June, but some populations start as early as April and end as late as July. White-breasted nuthatches raise one brood per year. The female white-breasted nuthatches build their nests alone. The nests are built in cavities 3 to 18 meters above the ground. The female usually lays 6 to 8 pinkish-white eggs. She then incubates the eggs for 12 to 14 days, and the male brings food to her. After hatching, the nestlings stay in the nest for 26 days. After fledging, the chicks remain near their parents for several weeks. Both parents feed and protect them during this time. These young nuthatches then leave their parent's territory to establish their own territories. They are able to breed the next spring.

Breeding interval: White-breasted nuthatches breed once per year.

Breeding season: The dates of nest-building, egg-laying, hatching, and young leaving the nest vary from region to region. Most breeding is done between early May and early June.

Range eggs per season: 3 to 10.

Average eggs per season: 7.

Range time to hatching: 12 to 14 days.

Average fledging age: 26 days.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 1 to 1 years.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 1 to 1 years.

Key Reproductive Features: seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate)

Average eggs per season: 8.

The female builds the nest and incubates the eggs. Once the eggs have hatched, both parents feed and protect the young. Males tend to do most of the parental care in the first few days after hatching, but as the young become more independent, both parents share the job equally.

Parental Investment: pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-hatching/birth (Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female)

  • Pravosudov, V., T. Grubb. 1993. White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta_carolinensis). Pp. 1-16 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 54. Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists' Union.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Sitta carolinensis

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There are 7 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank.

Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.

See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.

NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNTAGTGGGTACCGCCCTAAGCCTCCTCATTCGAGCAGAACTGGGCCAACCAGGCACCCTCCTGGGAGACGACCAAGTTTATAACGTAATCGTCACAGCCCATGCCTTCGTCATAATCTTTTTTATAGTTATACCAATTATAATCGGAGGATTCGGAAACTGACTAGTCCCCCTAATAATTGGAGCACCTGACATAGCATTCCCCCGAATAAACAATATAAGCTTCTGACTCCTACCACCATCCTTCCTCCTACTCCTAGCCTCATCCACAATCGAAGCAGGAGTAGGTACAGGATGAACAGTGTACCCACCACTAGCCGGCAACCTGGCCCACGCTGGAGCCTCAGTAGACTTAGCTATCTTCTCCCTACACTTAGCGGGAATCTCCTCCATCTTAGGAGCAATTAACTTCATTACTACCGCAATCAACATAAAACCCCCTGCTCTCTCCCAATACCAAACCCCCCTATTTGTATGATCCGTGCTAATCACTGCAGTCTTACTGCTCCTCTCCCTACCAGTCCTAGCTGCAGGTATTACCATACTCCTAACAGACCGAAACTTAAACACCACCTTCTTCGACCCAGCAGGAGGAGGAGACCCAGTCCTATACCAACACCTATTCTGATTTTTCGGACACCCAGAAGTGTATATCCTGATCCTA
-- end --

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Sitta carolinensis

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 8
Specimens with Barcodes: 12
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

White-breasted nuthatches are common throughout most of North America. There are an estimated 10,000,000 individuals throughout their range, and the overall population appears to be slowly increasing. This species is protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.

The removal of dead trees from forests may cause some problems for this species because they require cavity sites for nesting.

US Migratory Bird Act: protected

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: no special status

State of Michigan List: no special status

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern

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IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
LC
Least Concern

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S. & Symes, A.

Contributor/s

Justification
This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend appears to be increasing, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is extremely large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
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National NatureServe Conservation Status

Canada

Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure

United States

Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure

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NatureServe Conservation Status

Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure

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White-breasted nuthatches are common throughout most of North America. There are about 10,000,000 white-breasted nuthatches, and it seems that their population is slowly increasing. This species is protected under the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.

One problem facing this species is the removal of dead trees from forests. Dead trees provide many of the cavities that white-breasted nuthatches need for their nests.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern

US Migratory Bird Act: protected

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: no special status

State of Michigan List: no special status

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Population

Population Trend
Increasing
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Management

Restoration Potential: See Mitchell (1988) for specifications for the construction and placement of nest boxes.

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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

We do not know of any way that white-breasted nuthatches negatively affect humans.

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White-breasted nuthatches eat insects that some humans consider to be pests.

Positive Impacts: controls pest population

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Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

We do not know of any way that white-breasted nuthatches negatively affect humans.

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Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

White-breasted nuthatches eat insects that some humans consider to be pests.

Positive Impacts: controls pest population

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Names and Taxonomy

Taxonomy

Comments: Differences exist between Pacific Coast, interior, montane, and eastern populations that may revise species limits (AOU 1998). Wood (1992) examined color and size variation and concluded that all populations east of the Great Plains should be considered one subspecies, S. C. CAROLINENSIS.

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