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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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  • Russell Cannings

    Habitat preference is also interesting to note. Here in BC we have both the “Rocky Mountain” and “Carolina” nuthatches, with the RMs occurring in the pine/fir forests of the southern interior and the Carolinas sticking to the old-growth cottonwood/poplar/mixed-wood of the NE corner of the province, with a few sneaking into central BC around Prince George. It seems the eastern birds are slowly expanding west and south and may very well overlap with the RMs of the south, probably along the Fraser River near either Quesnel or Williams Lake. When these two populations meet it will be interesting to study their interactions (if any?). I’d be interested to know if other overlap zones occur with these ssp. (Montana?). Okay back to my real work. Thanks for the post!

  • Steve Siegel


    In 1998, the American Ornithologists’ Union included in its checklist the following statement:

    “… to elevate to species status the plethora of subspecies of birds exhibiting distinct but trivial, or geographically chaotic, variation would represent extreme retrogression to the typological species concepts of more than a century ago.”

    They said more, but I didn’t understand it. So at the risk of bringing the wrath of the academics on my head, I write this little note. Come on, academics, do your worst. I was one of you in my youth, but frankly don’t care any more. So what is raising my ire about
    Mlodinow’s article on the nuthatches?

    I am not qualified to comment on the currently accepted definition and means to determine what is a species. I am qualified to speculate on what effect these things have on ordinary people. But first, a little history. The distinctions among these birds are not new. The three putative species of nuthatch in Mlodinow’s article have been
    recognized as distinct for many years. Arthur Bent listed all three and five more in his Life Histories of North American Birds in 1948, as subspecies. In fact, the Rocky Mountain variety was described and named by Mearns in 1902, and the Slender-billed by Ridgeway in 1904. And perfectly valid subspecies the three remained. As Mlodinow explains, an attempt to elevate them to full species status was rejected by the AOU last year. He implies that those involved will continue to push until they win.

    But when they win do we lose? How many times does it take seeing a nuthatch not quite well enough to call it Carolina or Rocky Mountain or Slender-billed? How many times does it take seeing a gray sparrow with an eye ring and not being quite sure if it’s Bell’s or Sagebrush? It didn’t sing. How many times does it take almost seeing a murrelet on rough seas before it disappears? Was it Scripps’s or Guadalupe? Don’t know and can’t count it. How many times does it take before seeing these is not fun, but just stressful? How many “possibles” does my life list have to contain before I don’t care about it any more?

    It used to be that splits gave us two species. Now we are working on three. The Red Crossbills are out there and five are mentioned. As DNA studies run amok in the laboratories how many Fox Sparrows are we going to inherit? How many Song Sparrows? There are over 20 subspecies to choose from. As anyone over the age of ten knows, these trends only grow. They only regress after the bubble bursts. Like condos in Miami.

    Please don’t attack me as a wimpy armchair birder who is afraid of a new identification challenge. I will be right out there with all the birders looking for nuthatches and enjoying the nuances of their regional dialects. My point is simply that we are in this to have a good time, meet exciting challenges and maybe engage in a little friendly competition. Keeping up with the Joneses when Mr. and Mrs. Jones hang their binoculars from the edge of a DNA sequencer is not in the contract. Guessing
    at impossible identifications because some graduate student needs to publish something for a research grant is not why we go birding.

    • Ted Floyd

      I appreciate Steve Siegel’s rant, which succinctly and honorably (and cleverly) articulates a frustration that some birders have: basically, the growing disconnect between the traditional field experience and recent scientific discoveries.

      Birding east of the Mississippi enjoyed a Golden Age from 1947 to 1980. You could go out with your Peterson Field Guide (third edition, 1947) and name every bird you saw.

      But then we realized that gradients and subspecies and hybrids and such become far more complex as we head west from Colorado to California. And we realized that what we recognize as species limits (our deeply held Typological Species Concept to the rescue!) aren’t necessarily what the birds themselves recognize. And we’re still in the process of realizing that there’s a lot more species-level diversity than we ever knew, even right here in the ABA Area.

      My “advice,” if I may, to Steve: Go ahead and call birds “Traill’s Flycatcher” and “Three-toed Woodpecker”…”Myrtle Warbler” and “Slate-colored Junco.” We’re humans, after all, and we enjoy birds on our own human terms. Meanwhile, revel in the wonderful paradox that what we see in nature is an illusion.

      That’s beautiful to me. To me, it’s a wonder that so much of what I perceive is an illusion: sunset and sunrise (nonsense, according to Copernicus), absolute time and space (not since Einstein), ordinary matter and energy (it’s almost all dark energy and dark matter, we now know), and, oh yes, a Platonic interpretation of biodiversity–which Darwin of course chucked out the door in 1859.

      Science will march on. And we’ll continue to enjoy sunsets and sunrises, as we proceed in our merry Newtonian lives, calling birds “Traill’s Flycatchers” and “Slate-colored Juncos.” That doesn’t bother me. Indeed, it keeps me going.

    • Quentin Brown

      I very much agree with your thoughts, Steve. I’ve just listened to a cordilleran flycatcher in Idaho. I could just make out a slight difference in the call between that and the more familiar flycatcher I have in my local area, Vancouver, the pacific-slope flycatcher. Otherwise the birds looked identical. How these species were split from the western flycatcher is beyond me. I see nothing wrong with having subspecies.

      • Ted Floyd

        “How these species were split from the western flycatcher is beyond me.”

        Here is some of the reasoning, provided by the late Ned Johnson, one of the great American ornithologists of the past half-century:

        Johnson, N. K. 1980. Character variation and evolution of sibling species in the Empidonax difficilis-flavescens complex (Aves: Tyrannidae). University of California Publications in Zoology 112:1-151.

        Johnson, N. K. 1994b. Old-school taxonomy versus modern biosystematics: Species-level decisions in Stelgidopteryx and Empidonax. Auk 111:773-780.

        Johnson, N. K. and J. A. Marten. 1988. Evolutionary genetics of flycatchers. II. Differentiation in the Empidonax difficilis complex. Auk 105:177-191.

    • Mike Patterson

      The fundamental argument here reflects the space between watching birds and keeping lists of names of birds and where we, as birders, fall within that continuum. And because the discussion takes us into territory that includes the suggestion that a) different people approach birding differently, b) there is no approach that is fundamentally superior, and c) many are over sensitive about perceived critiques about one style of birding or another, no matter how gently the topic is handled, I suspect that no amount of rationalization will change some minds.

      I am very much a bird-watcher. I embrace being a BIRD-WATCHER. It’s always nice to be able to put a name on a bird when I can, but I don’t much care if every bird I see is tagged with an AOU/ABA listable name every time. I’m fine with Glaucous-winged/Western in the summer molting season, Western Flycatcher in the fall, seeing a sandpiper that might have been a Little Stint and letting it go as Calidris sp., because I can’t demonstrate it’s absolute identity to others with sufficient evidence. Naming is a human activity meant to satisfy a human agenda. The birds don’t care and I love that about them. I find the nuances of biological diversity far more interesting than the collecting of names. Nature is complicated and messy in spite of our best efforts tidy things up with tags and pigeon holes. I find the messiness fascinating and fun to watch.

      And the above paragraph represents a value claim I hold, not a criticism of those who find the collecting of name interesting or entertaining or valuable.

      I understand the frustration those who just want a stable set of parameters for approaching the sport/hobby/craft/magnificent obsession of birding at the listing-of-things end of the spectrum, but nature is not stable. Things change (including our understanding of how things change). As long as the ABA list is tied to the AOU list and the AOU list is tied to the science driving taxonomic nomenclature, we will have an ever changing list of things to list. Our complaining about it will not make birds or taxonomists behave any differently.

      • John H

        How much longer before birding involves carrying a shotgun and a DNA sampling kit instead of optics and a field guide?

  • Grant Stevenson

    Seems like all my WbN’s here (East-Central PA) over the years have been Carolinas according to disturbution, pention for deciduous trees,despite occasional presence in conifers, even in winter,

    and sounds. here. We’ll see what the next Lehigh Valley guide says, and state guide.

  • Ted Floyd

    If they’re different species, should we expect their songs to differ at least a bit? Here’s one I recorded this morning in eastern Boulder County, Colorado, in the region where the “Rocky Mountain” (nelsoni) and “Carolina” (carolinensis) nuthatches come together. Can this bird be ascribed, on the basis of its song, to one taxon or another?

    • Ted Floyd

      Ask and ye shall receive. I’m not at liberty to discuss all the details, but a forthcoming paper in the technical literature will show how we can pretty confidently ascribe this recording to nelsoni, rather than to carolinensis.

      Do we live in a great age, or what? Some guy (Yours Truly) goes out with a “cheap pocket recorder,” points it at a nuthatch singing from the treetops, posts the recording to the internet, and gets informed within hours that he was listening to a “Rocky Mountain Nuthatch.”

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