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Sex in the Sitta: The Curious Lives of Brown-headed Nuthatches

In their article in the February 2016 Birding, Jim Cox and colleagues tell the fascinating story of the Brown-headed Nuthatches that enliven the Tall Timbers Research Station near the Florida–Georgia line. We at Birding are especially proud to have included with the article so many of Tara Tanaka’s extraordinary photos of the nuthatches, but there’s more! Cox and his crew have created this short documentary film of the lives of the nuthatches:


The Birding article follows the lives of the energetic and charismatic nuthatches of Tall Timbers, but you might be wondering about the exploits of Brown-headed Nuthatches elsewhere in the species’ range. On that note, a distinctive population in The Bahamas, Sitta pusilla insularis, is particularly noteworthy.

Image 01 Brown-headed Nuthatch

On this Brown-headed Nuthatch from the Bahamas (subspecies insularis), note the impressively long bill. The Bahamian nuthatches may well be a separate species.

The isolated population restricted to Grand Bahama Island appears to be hovering dangerously close to extinction. Tall Timbers biologists visited the island in 2012 in hopes of gathering genetic samples and learning a bit more about the biology of this population. DNA samples would help to determine the genetic distinctiveness of the Bahamian population, and similar samples collected in Florida and analyzed in collaboration with the University of Florida suggest that nuthatches exhibit fine-scale variation with distinctive subgroups evident just in Florida.

Only a few nuthatches were encountered by the Tall Timbers research team. All locations where nuthatches had been seen sometime during the past 10 years were visited (about 30 sites), along with more than 200 sites where favorable habitat appeared to occur. But only two family groups were encountered with two weeks of steady sampling. The DNA samples collected from four individuals suggest that distinctive variation exists, but whether it rises to the level of a distinct species will require more samples. Tall Timbers is planning to conduct a systematic island-wide survey later this year and will pass along an update for the readers of Birding magazine in 2017.

For further reading, check out this overview of the distinct population (S. p. insularis) of Grand Bahama Island. And to get into the nitty-gritty, here’s an article on taxonomy and population size of the Bahamian population of the nuthatch.


Jessica Cusick, working toward her Ph.D. in Biological Science at Florida State University, is one of the authors of the Birding article, and we thought ABA members would be interested in learning more about her work on nuthatch biology. Also, see below for a way that you can help contribute to Jessica’s research.

Jessica Cusick is a Ph.D. candidate and nuthatch expert at Florida State University.

Jessica Cusick is a Ph.D. candidate and nuthatch expert at Florida State University.

Jessica is a behavioral ecologist interested in how and why individuals interact to form complex, cooperative groups. Her study-system is cooperative breeding behavior in the Brown-headed Nuthatch. In cooperative breeding systems, young individuals often forgo their own reproduction and assist other breeders in raising their offspring. Brown-headed Nuthatches are facultative cooperative breeders, meaning some, but not all, breeding groups have helpers and some, but not all, young males become helpers. Jessica’s dissertation research investigates how individuals vary in their tendency to cooperative, how variation in the tendency to cooperate correlates with other behaviors, and what causes individual variation in cooperative behavior. She hopes to understand why certain individuals are more cooperative than others and whether cooperative tendency is a consistent personality trait in nonhuman animals.

Check out this website to learn more about Jessica Cusick’s work and to consider making a financial contribution toward her research. And to see more photos and get more info, please follow Jessica on Instagram.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted at The ABA Blog for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.
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