The gregarious pygmy nuthatch

Apr 19, 2011
Next time you are in a ponderosa grove at Camp Polk Meadow Preserve, look around for the energetic pygmy nuthatch.


The Land Trust's
Camp Polk Meadow Preserve is a birding hot spot—home to more than 150 species of birds. With spring migrations beginning to get underway, take a moment to join Eva Eagle to get to know one of the species at the meadow: the pygmy nuthatch.


Next time you are in a ponderosa grove at Camp Polk Meadow Preserve, look around for the energetic pygmy nuthatch. These tiny birds can often be seen descending a tree head first as they search for insects in the bark. The smallest of the nuthatches, about 4 inches in length, the pygmy nuthatch has a gray back and gray cap coming down to the eye, and is whitish on the nape and breast. If you don't see one, you may hear its high, happy little call to its buddies, as pygmy nuthatches are very gregarious and seem to talk to each other a lot. 

pygmy nuthatch in snag_karen parker
pygmy nuthatch in snag_karen parker
pygmy nuthatch in snag_karen parker

Pygmy nuthatches nest in cavities, hollowing out existing holes and lining them with soft material like fur, grass, or feathers. The nest cavities are also used in winter when many nuthatches roost together in each hole and let their body temperature drop overnight. These ‘little gray guys’ work together during the nesting season as well: previous year’s male offspring stay home to help mom and dad feed the next brood. As a result, it is easy to find the nests because there is a lot of activity at the nest tree.

The Land Trust has been studying pygmy nuthatches as part of the larger bird survey program at Camp Polk Meadow Preserve. The pygmy nuthatch is considered a focal species for ponderosa pine forests which means that they tell us a lot about the health of the forest and its inhabitants. When we see lots of pygmy nuthatches it means the habitat is relatively healthy.

Pygmy nuthatches can be seen at Camp Polk Meadow Preserve’s two most dense ponderosa groves. The grove at the Preserve entrance has the highest rate of pygmy nuthatch sightings especially during breeding season. In fact, bird survey data shows that pygmy nuthatches sightings seem to be on the rise during breeding season. This suggests that the Land Trust's work to create more snags in these ponderosa groves is improving their habitat.

And it means you can enjoy the little gray guys when you go out to visit the Preserve. Just park at the kiosk and walk back along the road till you can duck into the ponderosa grove that you drove through.  Sit down or stand quietly for a little while and soon you should hear the happy chatter of the pygmy nuthatches.


Birders’ note:

USFS pygmy nuthatch
USFS pygmy nuthatch
USFS pygmy nuthatch

Central Oregon has three nuthatch species: red-breasted, white-breasted, and pygmy nuthatch. The pygmy nuthatch is by far the smallest at about 4 inches in length, with a gray back and gray cap coming down to the eye, whitish on the nape and breast. At 4 ½ inches in length, the red-breasted nuthatch is easily distinguished by a broad black line through the eye and a white stripe above it, more easily seen than its reddish colored breast. The white-breasted nuthatch is a bit larger than the others at 5 or 6 inches in length. Oh, and yes, it has a very white breast, as well as a white face. All three nuthatch species can be found at the Land Trust’s Camp Polk Meadow or Metolius Preserves.