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Nuthatches and Wall Creepers (Sittidae)

Nuthatches and wall creepers

(Sittidae)

Class Aves

Order Passeriformes

Suborder Passeri (Oscines)

Family Sittidae


Thumbnail description
Small, large-headed, short-tailed perching birds that clamber upwards or downwards on the surface of tree trunks or rocks to obtain their food of invertebrates

Size
Nuthatches: 3.5–7.5 in (8.5–19 cm), sittellas:4.3–4.8 in (11–12 cm), and wall creepers: about 6.3 in (16 cm) in body length

Number of genera, species
3 genera; about 27 species

Habitat
Mostly forest and woodlands

Conservation status
Endangered: 2 species; Vulnerable: 2 species; Near Threatened: 2 species

Distribution
North America, Eurasia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australasia

Evolution and systematics

The family Sittidae is within the Passeriformes, the most diverse order of birds. As considered here, the Sittidae includes three subfamilies: the typical nuthatches (subfamily Sittinae), the sittellas (Neosittinae), and the wall creeper (Tichodrominae). There are about 23 species of nuthatches (genus Sitta), three of sittellas (genus Daphoenositta), and one wall creeper (Tichodroma muraria).

Physical characteristics

The nuthatches (Sittinae) range in body length from 3.5 to 7.5 in (8.5–19 cm). They have a compact body, a large head, a short squared tail, a short neck, and a thin, chisel-shaped, slightly upturned bill. They are generally colored blue-gray above, white or brownish below, with a dark top of the head, and a white stripe over the eye. The subfamily Neosittinae consists of one genus and two species of sittellas. They have a body length of 4.3–4.8 in (11–12 cm), a compact body, a large head, a short tail, and a thin, chisel-shaped bill. The body coloration is brown-streaked or black with a red face. The subfamily Tichodrominae consists of only one species, the wall creeper. It has a body length of about 6.5 in (16 cm). It has a compact body, a short tail, and a strong, slightly down-turned bill. It is colored brownish above, white below with brown streaks, has a white throat, and an ochre patch around the eyes. The claw of its hind toe is rather long, and its feet can grasp even slight projections on a rock face. In most species the sexes are similar in morphology and coloration.

Distribution

Species occur in North America, Eurasia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australasia.

Habitat

Most species occur in forest or woodland habitat, and several in rocky scrubland.

Behavior

The nuthatches forage on the bark of trees. They are the only birds that regularly clamber head-downwards instead of only upwards while seeking food on this kind of substrate (they will also climb upwards, and sideways). They move downwards by reaching down with one foot while holding themselves with the other one, and continuing this with alternate feet. Their climbing movements are usually on a slant, resulting in a spiral or zigzag pathway being followed.

Feeding ecology and diet

Nuthatches use their bill to glean insects, spiders, snails, and other invertebrates from the surface and crevices of tree trunks, sometimes chiseling loose bark away to expose prey beneath. They may also forage on rocks and in epiphytic mosses and lichens. They also glean arthropods from foliage, from the ground, and may even catch them in flight. During the spring and summer they mostly feed on invertebrates, but in the winter they also eat small fruits and oil-rich seeds of various kinds of plants. To open an enclosed seed, such as that of the sunflower, they wedge it into a cleft and hammer the top with their bill. Nuthatches break open snail shells in a similar manner. At times when food is abundant, they store it in clefts for use later in times of scarcity.

Reproductive biology

Established pairs of nuthatches are monogamous and, unless disturbed, occupy a permanent territory. They nest in

natural cavities in trees or in ones excavated and later abandoned by woodpeckers. They typically narrow the diameter of the entrance hole by plastering it with mud, which hardens as it dries. This is done to keep predators and competitors for the nest site at bay. Some species nest in rock cavities. Within the cavity, the nest itself is usually a loose structure of bark flakes and leaves. They lay four to 10 eggs, which are white and flecked with brown or red. The eggs are incubated by the female, but both sexes feed the young birds.

Conservation status

The IUCN considers two species Endangered, two species Vulnerable, and two species Near Threatened. The Algerian

nuthatch (Sitta ledanti) of Algeria is Endangered, as is the white-browed nuthatch (S. victoriae) of Myanmar. Vulnerable species are the giant nuthatch (S. magna) of Myanmar, Thailand, and adjacent China; and the beautiful nuthatch (S. formosa) of India, Bhutan, Myanmar, southern China, and Laos. Near Threatened species include the Yunnan nuthatch (S. yunnanensis) of southwestern China; the yellow-billed nuthatch (S. solangiae) of Vietnam and southeastern China.

Significance to humans

Nuthatches are not of direct importance to humans, other than the indirect economic benefits of ecotourism and birdwatching focused on seeing birds in natural habitats.

Species accounts

List of Species

Red-breasted nuthatch
White-breasted nuthatch
Brown-breasted nuthatch
Nuthatch
Giant nuthatch
Black sittella
Wall creeper

Red-breasted nuthatch

Sitta canadensis

subfamily

Sittinae

taxonomy

Sitta canadensis Linnaeus, 1776.

other common names

French: Sittelle à poitrine rousse; German: Kanadakleiber; Spanish: Saltapalo Canadiense.

physical characteristics

4 in (10 cm), with a short tail. The back is colored blue-gray, the undersides red-brown, crown black, throat white, and with a white line over the eye and a black one through it.

distribution

Occurs widely in southern and northwestern Canada and most of the United States.

habitat

Breeds in mature, boreal or montane, conifer-dominated forest. Winters in a wider range of conifer dominated forest.

behavior

Occurs as pairs that defend a breeding territory. It is an irregular migrant that spends some winters in the breeding range. Often flocks with chickadees in winter. The song is a series of nasal notes.

feeding ecology and diet

Gleans invertebrates from tree bark and foliage, and also eats fruits and seeds in winter.

reproductive biology

Pairs nest in a tree cavity. The female incubates the eggs but both sexes feed the young.

conservation status

Not threatened. A widespread and abundant species.

significance to humans

None known.


White-breasted nuthatch

Sitta carolinensis

subfamily

Sittinae

taxonomy

Sitta carolinensis Latham, 1790.

other common names

French: Sittelle à poitrine blanche; German: Carolinakleiber; Spanish: Saltapalo Blanco.

physical characteristics

5 in (12.7 cm), with a short tail. The back is colored blue-gray, the crown black, and undersides and throat white.

distribution

Occurs widely in extreme southern Canada, through most of the United States, and into western Mexico. Does not migrate, except for northernmost populations that may move somewhat south.

habitat

Occurs in a wide range of mature, deciduous-dominated forest types.

behavior

Occurs as pairs that defend a breeding territory. Typically does not migrate. Often flocks with chickadees in winter. The song is a series of nasal notes.

feeding ecology and diet

Gleans invertebrates from tree bark and foliage, and also eats fruits and seeds in winter.

reproductive biology

Pairs nest in a tree cavity. The female incubates the eggs but both sexes feed the young.

conservation status

Not threatened. A widespread and abundant species.

significance to humans

None known.


Brown-breasted nuthatch

Sitta pusilla

subfamily

Sittinae

taxonomy

Sitta pusilla Latham, 1790.

other common names

French: Sittelle à tête brune; German: Braunkopfkleiber; Spanish: Sita de Cabeza Castaña.

physical characteristics

3.5 in (9 cm), with a short tail. The back is colored blue-gray, the crown brown, and the undersides and throat are white washed with brown.

distribution

Occurs widely in the southeastern United States.

habitat

Occurs in mature, pine-dominated forest types.

behavior

Occurs as pairs that defend a breeding territory. Does not migrate. Occurs in mixed-species flocks with chickadees and warblers during the nonbreeding season. The song is a series of soft twitterings.

feeding ecology and diet

Gleans invertebrates from tree bark and foliage, especially on branches. Also eats fruits and seeds in winter.

reproductive biology

Pairs nest in a tree cavity. The female incubates the eggs but both sexes feed the young.

conservation status

Not threatened. A widespread and abundant species.

significance to humans

None known.


Nuthatch

Sitta europaea

subfamily

Sittinae

taxonomy

Sitta europaea Linnaeus, 1758. Twenty-five subspecies.

other common names

English: Eurasian nuthatch, wood nuthatch; French: Sittelle torchepot; German: Kleiber; Spanish: Trepador Azul.

physical characteristics

5.5 in (14 cm), with a short tail. The back is colored blue-gray, the crown blue-gray, undersides brown to white, throat white, and with a black line through the eye. However, coloration varies considerably among the approximately 25 geographic subspecies of this wide-ranging species.

distribution

Occurs widely in temperate Eurasia, from the Atlantic to Pacific coasts.

habitat

Occurs in a wide range of mature temperate forests, ranging from deciduous- to conifer-dominated types.

behavior

Occurs as pairs that defend a breeding territory. Does not migrate. Occurs in mixed-species flocks with tits (or chickadees) in the nonbreeding season. The song is a varied series of loud calls.

feeding ecology and diet

Gleans invertebrates from tree bark and foliage, especially on branches. Also eats fruits and seeds in winter.

reproductive biology

Pairs nest in a tree cavity. The female incubates the eggs but both sexes feed the young.

conservation status

Not threatened. A widespread and abundant species.

significance to humans

None known.


Giant nuthatch

Sitta magna

subfamily

Sittinae

taxonomy

Sitta magna Ramsay, 1876.

other common names

French: Sitelle géante; German: Riesenkleiber; Spanish: Sita Gigante.

physical characteristics

8 in (20 cm), with a short tail. The back is colored blue-gray, the crown blue-gray, undersides light gray with chestnut beneath tail, throat white, and with a black line through the eye.

distribution

Occurs in southwestern China, east-central Myanmar, and northwestern China.

habitat

Occurs in open montane forest with pines present or dominant, at altitudes of 3,900–8,200 ft (1,200–2,500 m) or higher.

behavior

Occurs as pairs that defend a breeding territory. Does not migrate. Occurs in mixed-species flocks with tits (or chickadees) and other nuthatch species in the nonbreeding season. The song is a series of loud trisyllabic calls.

feeding ecology and diet

Gleans invertebrates from tree bark and foliage and also eats fruits and seeds in winter.

reproductive biology

Pairs nest in a tree cavity. The female incubates the eggs but both sexes feed the young.

conservation status

A rare species that is listed as Vulnerable. This species is much reduced in abundance and range. It has been greatly affected by habitat loss caused by agricultural disturbance and conversion and by fuelwood harvesting. Its remaining critical habitats must be protected.

significance to humans

None known.


Black sittella

Daphoenositta miranda

subfamily

Neosittinae

taxonomy

Daphoenositta miranda De Vis, 1897.

other common names

English: Pink-faced sittella; French: Néositte noire; German: Prachtkleiber; Spanish: Sita de Cara Rosada.

physical characteristics

4.3 in (11 cm), with a short tail, a black body, and red-pink face and tip of tail.

distribution

Occurs in New Guinea.

habitat

Occurs in mossy cloud forest at altitudes of 6,600–11,800 ft (2,000–3,600 m) or higher.

behavior

Occurs as pairs or in small flocks. Does not migrate. Like nuthatches, it will clamber head-downwards on tree trunks. The song is a faint series of squeaky notes.

feeding ecology and diet

Gleans invertebrates from tree branches and foliage and also eats fruits.

reproductive biology

Builds a deep cup-shaped nest on a lichen-covered branch (rather than nesting in tree or rock cavities like other members of the Sittidae). The nest consists of spider and cocoon silk, with pieces of bark to camouflage the exterior. There are usually three eggs, which are similar in color to the lichens near the nest. Cooperative breeding occurs, in which not only the parents take part in nest building and the feeding of the young, but also other individuals. The "helpers" are likely close relatives, such as non-breeding young or siblings of the breeding pair.

conservation status

An uncommon species but not listed as threatened.

significance to humans

None known.


Wall creeper

Tichodroma muraria

subfamily

Tichodrominae

taxonomy

Tichodroma muraria Linaeus, 1766.

other common names

French: Tichodrome échelette; German: Mauerlä; Spanish: Treparriscos.

physical characteristics

6.5 in (16.5 cm), with a short tail, and a long, black, down-curved bill. The back crown of the head is gray, the chin and tail are black, and the wings are white-spotted gray with red patches.

distribution

Occurs widely in Eurasia, from the Pyrenees, Alps, northern Apennines and Carinthian mountains, over the Balkans to Syria, the Himalayas and adjacent mountainous China.

habitat

Occurs in mountainous regions in the vicinity of cliffs and rocky gorges as high as the snow line. There must, however, be vegetation in the vicinity of the rocky places where they breed. Migrates to somewhat lower habitats in the winter.

behavior

Wall creepers have a solitary lifestyle outside of the breeding season. They frequently flit their wings and have a light, butterfly-like flight pattern. They have an altitudinal migration. The song is a series of rising, high-pitched notes.

feeding ecology and diet

Forages for invertebrates in crevices of steep rockfaces and walls. Also eats small fruits and seeds.

reproductive biology

Nests in a rocky crevice. Lays three or four white eggs.

conservation status

Not threatened. A widespread species within its habitat, but not particularly abundant.

significance to humans

None known.


Resources

Books

BirdLife International. Threatened Birds of the World. Barcelona and Cambridge: Lynx Edicions and BirdLife International, 2000.

Harrap, S., and D. Quinn. Tits, Nuthatches and Treecreepers of the World. London: Christopher Helm, 1996.

Matthysen, E. The Nuthatches. San Diego: Academic Press: 1998.

Periodicals

Norris, R. A. "Comparative Biosystematics and Life History of the Nuthatches Sitta pygmaea and Sitta pusilla." University of California Publications in Zoology 56 (1958): 119–300.

Organizations

BirdLife International. Wellbrook Court, Girton Road, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire CB3 0NA United Kingdom. Phone: +44 1 223 277 318. Fax: +44-1-223-277-200. E-mail: [email protected]dlife.org.uk Web site: <http://www.birdlife.net>

IUCN–The World Conservation Union. Rue Mauverney 28, Gland, 1196 Switzerland. Phone: +41-22-999-0001. Fax: +41-22-999-0025. E-mail: [email protected] Web site: <http://www.iucn.org>

Bill Freedman, PhD

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