A Big Day for a Little Bird

Brown-headed Nuthatch

Audubon Society Effort Reaches 10,000 Nesting Boxes
November 17, 2015 

There is a housing boom in the world of the Brown-headed Nuthatch.

The North Carolina Audubon Society recently announced that the number of nesting boxes North Carolinians have built to shelter the small brown-and-blue bird has eclipsed 10,000.

As part of a larger initiative to protect native birds in North Carolina, Audubon set a goal of 10,000 nuthatch nesting boxes in 2013. They met their goal in just two years.

Curtis Smalling
, the director of land bird conservation for Audubon North Carolina, says Audubon and its partners planned to make long-term change to habitats in North Carolina.

“We brought together a coalition of 25 partners, including state agencies, three years ago in January,” he said. “We wondered how North Carolina would look different in 20 years if we did certain things. And we wanted to focus on priority species.”

The Brown-headed Nuthatch is a “priority species” for a number of reasons, not the least of which, says Smalling, is the squeaky little bird’s North Carolina roots. About 18% of the world’s population of Brown-headed Nuthatches Nesting Boxmakes its home in North Carolina.

“North Carolina is a hotspot for Brown-headed Nuthatches,” Smalling said. “Where else do we have a responsibility to keep them as abundant as they are here?”

Smalling says the Piedmont is a site of major decline in Brown-headed Nuthatches, mainly because of changes to their environment.

Brown-headed Nuthatches make their home in the southeast because of the temperate climate and abundance of pine trees. The small birds rely on pine nuts and insects living in the trees for their food. They also nest indoors: in old woodpecker holes, or holes they dig themselves in soft, dead pinewood.

Development has hindered the nuthatches’ ability to find homes, as they require a decent stand of pine trees to roost and raise young.

In today’s climate, however, a stand of pine trees is really their only major requirement, and Smalling says that provides an opening for conservationists to have a real impact.

“Brown-headed Nuthatches will actually remain in very developed areas as long as there are good stands of pine, and they respond really well to nest boxes,” he said.

That means places like parks, golf courses and apartment complexes are all good potential homes for the little pine-specialists, as long as there are a few pine trees around.

Further, because Brown-headed Nuthatches commonly make their homes in old woodpecker holes, they are not above using a man-made nesting box as a home.

Brown-headed NuthatchSmalling says that currently, birds are actively using about 15% of the boxes, but he expects that number to rise as high as 75% in the next few years.

The nesting boxes may be important in the future, and Brown-headed Nuthatches are climate-endangered birds. What that means is they are adapted to very specific climatic conditions, and changes to those conditions could make an area uninhabitable.

In fact, a recent Audubon Society study showed that by 2080, up to 95% of the Brown-headed Nuthatches’ range could be unfit for the birds. A warmer and drier Piedmont could affect the abundance of food, the number of pine trees in local forests and access to water.

“Basically what that means is local conditions get harder and harder,” Smalling said. “Nesting cavities and pine forests can help alleviate some of that.”

Smalling says there will still be pockets in the Piedmont where the climate will still work for the nuthatches, and that nesting boxes will help to support as many nuthatches as possible in those pockets. The Audubon Society estimates that a single nesting box could add 21 nuthatches to a population over 10 years.

Thanks to Audubon, and partners ranging from scouting groups, to churches to communities, 10,000 boxes now span North Carolina, and on top of providing homes for the birds, the boxes provide an opportunity for citizen scientists to study Brown-headed Nuthatches.

By monitoring which nesting boxes are being used, scientists can access full population data of nuthatches that they’ve never had before.

“We want to see the hard numbers, but numbers are hard to get,” Smalling said. “With this big data set, we can ask some pretty great questions.”

Those questions include the best conservation strategies for promoting Brown-headed Nuthatches.

Just in case you were wondering, the Brown-headed Nuthatch nesting box project is not stopping at 10,000. Earlier efforts to protect bluebirds resulted in more than a quarter-of-a-million nesting boxes and Smalling he would be thrilled with that kind of response for the nuthatch, especially given how much one box can do for the species.

“Projects like this open people’s eyes to actions they can take that have a positive impact on the species,” he said. “Putting up a box or planting a native shrub has been shown to be successful. It really does make a difference.”

If you would like to learn more about Brown-headed Nuthatches or where you can get a nesting box and how to put it up, visit the North Carolina Audubon Society’s website.

— Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, engineering, medicine and the environment in North Carolina.