The white-breasted nuthatch is one of my favorite birds, and its curious, carefree spirit is an essential part of the oak savanna habitat of the arboretum. I always look forward to hearing its vocalizations and watching it hop and skip around on a tree.

It has an interesting behavior of moving headfirst down a tree as it forages. It will often pause and tilt its head back to have a glance at its surroundings. In David Sibley’s book What It Is Like to Be a Bird he says this about how nuthatches move around a tree:
”They do not use their tail for a brace when climbing—just their two feet clinging with sharp claws. The hind toe is particularly important for clinging, and it’s relatively large and strong. Usually they position one foot above the other so that the lower foot acts as a brace while the upper foot clings to the bark. This allows them to move easily up or down the trunk and at all angles on branches.”

It primarily eats insects, insect larvae, and spiders. They have pointy bills for probing into bark furrows and beds of moss and lichen growing on the tree. It also eats nuts and seeds. They love to retrieve bits of acorns from the parking lot that have been run over by cars. It will wedge a piece of acorn in the bark of a tree to hold it while it breaks off pieces to eat or will stash it for later. I also see it collect seeds like those from Douglas-fir.

Peterson describes its voice as: “Song a rapid series of low, nasal whistled notes on one pitch: whi, whi, whi, whi, whi, whi or who, who, who, etc. Notes of birds in interior West higher pitched and given in rapid series. Call a distinctive nasal yank, yank, yank; also a nasal tootoo.

This is a fun bird to watch and get to know. I hope to see you out there when the park opens up again.

See more of Bryan’s work here.


Peterson, Roger Tory, et al. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. 4th ed, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

Sibley, David. What It’s like to Be a Bird: From Flying to Nesting, Eating to Singing — What Birds Are Doing, and Why. Alfred A. Knopf, 2020.

White-Breasted Nuthatch Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology Accessed 15 Feb. 2024.