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How Many Species of White-breasted Nuthatches?

 

If you live and bird in the eastern U.S. or eastern Canada, you’ve probably learned the common call note of the familiar White-breasted Nuthatch: a loud, throaty, somewhat nasal yawrnk. Here’s a recording, courtesy of recordist Mike Nelson, from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee:

(Can you recognize the other birds in this cut? For starters, I hear an Eastern Bluebird.)

 

Let’s now head west, to the Interior West of the U.S. The White-breasted Nuthatches sound different out there. Their calls are wimpier, more stuttering, typically doubled or trebled or run into a series of four or more notes: yirrr, yirrr, yirrr… Here’s a recording, courtesy of Dan Lane, from Flagstaff, Arizona:

(Pardon the constant interruption from one or more Pygmy Nuthatches. That’s how it is in the pine forests of the western U.S.)

 

Now let’s head ever farther west, to North America’s Pacific Slope. There the White-breasted Nuthatches sound different still—more urgent, more pure-tone, a bit more nasal, suggesting a Pinyon Jay: yeah! or yayr! Here’s a recording, courtesy of Eric DeFonso, from Yolo County, California, a bit north of Sacramento:

(With heavy interference from a House Sparrow.)

 

No question about it, the calls of the geographically widespread White-breasted Nuthatch vary quite a bit from region to region. So do other characters (biologists say “characters,” not “characteristics”—go figure) of the White-breasted Nuthatch: the shape of the bill, color and contrast on the tertials, the face pattern, and so forth.

Birding coverIndeed, as Steven G. Mlodinow reports in a feature article in the May/June 2014 Birding (click here for the full PDF download), the bird currently known as a single species, the White-breasted Nuthatch, may well be a complex of three or four species.

One of these days—or years, or decades—the American Ornithologists’ Union will figure it all out. But there’s no reason for us to wait around. The White-breasted Nuthatches—plural—are highly distinctive, undeniably fascinating, and incontrovertibly worthy of our attention and admiration. And they have names: Carolina Nuthatch, Rocky Mountain Nuthatch, and Slender-billed Nuthatch.

As Mlodinow says in his article, the three nuthatches are most easily distinguished by their vocalizations. Be careful, though, about the different sorts of vocalizations uttered by nuthatches. Mlodinow is talking about the typical call notes—given by relaxed birds, just hanging out, not all worked up or something. Like the ones we heard above.

All nuthatches can—and quite often do—get worked up. In such situations, they can run their calls together and thus suggest the “normal” call of the Rocky Mountain Nuthatch. Also, all nuthatches give quiet pipping notes: yink, yenk, peep, pip, etc. These are quite soft and quite nasal. And, of course, nuthatches sing—a series of mellow, bell-like notes, suggesting a distant Northern Flicker or Yellow-breasted Chat. The song doesn’t vary nearly as much among the three nuthatches as the call.

Here’s a really useful clip—of two or more Rocky Mountain Nuthatches—that features all the basic call types: the weak but musical song, the powerful primary call notes, and the wimpy, nasal, pipping notes often thrown into the mix. The recording by Eric DeFonso is from Santa Cruz County, Arizona. Here goes:

 

Know the differences—within any particular nuthatch, but also among all three of the major population groups—and you’re well on your way to appreciating the enhanced diversity of the ABA Area’s White-breasted Nuthatch complex.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

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