• Adult
  • Adult feeding young.

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Pygmy Nuthatch

Sitta pygmaea
Members of this diverse group make up more than half of the bird species worldwide. Most are small. However their brains are relatively large and their learning abilities are greater than those of most other birds. Passerine birds are divided into two suborders, the suboscines and the oscines. Oscines are capable of more complex song, and are considered the true songbirds. In Washington, the tyrant flycatchers are the only suboscines; the remaining 27 families are oscines.
Nuthatches are small, compact birds with short tails and long, strong bills. They have strong toes and claws, which enable them to climb up, down, and sideways on tree trunks and branches, probing for insects hidden in bark crevices. They do not use their tails to prop themselves up like woodpeckers and creepers. They sometimes stick a large seed in a crevice for support and then “hack” it open with their bills. This behavior earned them their name. Nuthatches are monogamous, and Washington’s species form long-term pair bonds. One species in Washington is a cooperative breeder, with helper-birds aiding at the nest. Nuthatches nest in cavities—some excavate their own, while others rely on natural cavities, old woodpecker holes, and to a lesser extent, nest boxes. The female generally incubates the eggs, and the male feeds her while she is on the nest. Both parents feed the young until a few weeks after they fledge.
Fairly common resident east.
  • Species of Concern

General Description

The Pygmy Nuthatch is a small bird with a slate-gray back and buffy underside. Males and females look the same, with white chins extending up just below the eyes and gray-brown caps. The edge of the cap is darker than the rest, giving the Pygmy Nuthatch a dark eye-line. Its bill is long and solid, and it has long toes and talons. The white on each side of its short tail can be seen in flight.


In Washington, Pygmy Nuthatches are closely associated with old-growth Ponderosa pine forests and are seldom found outside of this habitat.


Pygmy Nuthatches are the most social of Washington's nuthatches and are found in flocks year round. Winter flocks roost together in cavities. Pygmy Nuthatches forage primarily on cones and in needle clusters at the outermost tips of high pine branches. Because they are often high up in trees, they are most easily located by voice. Pygmy Nuthatches are one of only a few cooperatively breeding songbirds in North America. During the breeding season, about a third of the pairs have up to three helpers at the nest. These helpers are usually related males, often offspring from the previous year. These birds help defend the nest site and raise the young.


Insects, primarily weevils, leaf and bark beetles, are the predominant food in the summer, especially of the young. During winter, their diet includes many seeds. Pygmy Nuthatches will also come to seed and suet feeders.


Pairs form long-term bonds and remain paired year round. Pygmy Nuthatches are cavity-nesters. They sometimes use natural cavities, woodpecker holes, or artificial nest boxes, but usually they excavate their own cavities. Both members of the pair dig the nest hole in a dead branch or snag of a Ponderosa pine or aspen. The nest hole is lined with bark strips, plant down, moss, cocoons, fur, and feathers. The female incubates 5 to 9 eggs for 12 to 17 days. While she incubates, the male and the helpers bring her food. Male, female, and helpers all feed the nestlings and fledglings. Young birds fledge at 14 to 22 days and are partially dependent on adult birds for 23 to 28 days post-fledging. Pairs occasionally raise two broods a season, but one brood is the norm.

Migration Status

Pygmy Nuthatches are mostly permanent residents, but mountain breeders will wander into lowlands in winters when cone crops are poor. They are, however, less likely to move out of their breeding grounds than are the other two nuthatch species in Washington.

Conservation Status

In areas of the eastern Cascades with extensive Ponderosa pine forests, Pygmy Nuthatches are fairly common. They are less abundant in forests that are intensively managed for timber than they are in more natural settings. Severe forest fires can have a negative impact on the population. Pygmy Nuthatches are considered an indicator species, meaning the health of their population is an indication of the health of Ponderosa pine habitat and the other species that use this habitat. As such, they should be closely monitored.

When and Where to Find in Washington

Pygmy Nuthatches can be found year round in the Ponderosa pine forests of the eastern Cascade lowlands, up to middle elevations (especially near Wenas Creek in Yakima County), locally in the Blue Mountains, and in the Ponderosa pine belt fringing the north side of the Columbia Basin (especially in the Okanogan and in Spokane).

Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
Pacific Northwest Coast
Puget Trough
North Cascades
West Cascades
Canadian RockiesFFFFFFFFFFFF
Columbia PlateauFFFFFFFFFFFF

Washington Range Map

North American Range Map

North America map legend

Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List
MonitoredEarly Warning

View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern