Birds of America
By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.
THE WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH.
SITTA CAROLINENSIS, Linn.
PLATE CCXLVII.--MALE AND FEMALES.
Only four species of Nuthatch have as yet been observed within the limits
of the United States. My opinion however is, that at least two more will be
discovered:--one larger than any of those known, in the high wooded plains
bordering the Pacific Ocean; the other, of nearly the size of the present
species, towards the boundary line of Texas and the United States.
Although the species now under consideration is found in all parts of our
extensive country, it is yet the least numerous; there being to appearance more
than three of the Brown-headed, and two of the Red-bellied, for every one of the
White-breasted. It is an inhabitant of the forest and the orchard, frequently
approaching to the very doors of the farm-houses during winter, when it is not
unusually seen tapping at the eaves beneath the roof, thrusting itself into
barns and houses, or searching for food among the poultry on the ground, where
it moves prettily by short hops. During summer it gives a preference to the
interior of the forest, and lives in a retired and secluded manner, especially
during the breeding season. Although a lively bird, its actions are less
animated, and it exhibits less petulance and restlessness than the other
species. It moves alertly, however, when searching for food, climbing or
retrograding downwards or sidewise, with cheerfulness and a degree of
liveliness, which distinguish it at once from other birds. Now and then it has
a quaint look, if I may so speak, while watching the observer, clinging to the
bark head downward, and perhaps only a few feet distant from him whom it well
knows to be its enemy, or at least not its friend, for many farmers, not
distinguishing between it and the Sap-sucker, (Picus pubescens,) shoot at it, as
if assured that they are doing a commendable action.
During the breeding season, the affection which this bird ordinarily shews
to its species, is greatly increased. Two of them may be seen busily engaged in
excavating a hole for their nest in the decayed portion of the trunk or branch
of a tree, all the time congratulating each other in the tenderest manner. The
male, ever conspicuous on such occasions, works in earnest, and carries off the
slender chips, chiselled by the female. He struts around her, peeps into the
hole, chirrups at intervals, or hovers about her on the wing. While she is
sitting on her eggs, he seldom absents himself many moments; now with a full
bill he feeds her, now returns to be assured that her time is pleasantly spent.
When the young come from the egg, they are fed with unremitting care. They
now issue from their wooden eave, and gently creep around its aperture. There,
while the genial rays of the summer's sun give vigour to their tender bodies,
and enrich their expanding plumage, the parents, faithful guardians to the last,
teach them how to fly, to ascend the tree with care, and at length to provide
for their own wants. Ah! where are the moments which I have passed, in the
fulness of ecstacy, contemplating the progress of these amiable creatures!
Alas! they are gone, those summer days of hope and joy are fled, and the clouds
of life's winter are mustering in their gloomy array.
This species breeds twice in the year, in the Southern and Middle States;
seldom more than once to the eastward of New York. In the State of Maine, they
work at their nest late in May; in Nova Scotia not until June. Farther north I
did not find them. Sometimes they are contented with the hole bored by any
small Woodpecker, or even breed in the decayed hollow of a tree or fence. The
eggs, five or six in number, are dull white, spotted with brown at the larger
end. They are laid on detached particles of wood.
The notes of the White-breasted Nuthatch are remarkable on account of their
nasal sound. Ordinarily they resemble the monosyllables hank, hank, kank, kank;
but now and then in the spring, they emit a sweeter kind of chirp, whenever the
sexes meet, or when they are feeding their young.
Its flight is rapid, and at times rather protracted. If crossing a river
or a large field, they rise high, and proceed with a tolerably regular motion;
but when passing from one tree to another, they form a gently incurvated sweep.
They alight on small branches or twigs, and now and then betake themselves to
the ground to search for food.
Their bill is strong and sharp, and they not unfrequently break acorns,
chestnuts, &c., by placing them in the crevices of the bark of trees, or between
the splinters of a fence-rail, where they are seen hammering at them for a
considerable time. The same spot is usually resorted to by the Nuthatch as soon
as it has proved to be a good and convenient one. A great object seems to be to
procure the larvae entombed in the kernels of the hard fruits, insects being at
all times the favourite food of these birds. They are fond of roosting in their
own nest, to which I believe many return year after year, simply cleaning or
deepening it for the purpose of depositing their eggs in greater security. Like
others of the tribe, they hang head-downwards to sleep, especially in a state of
The young obtain their full plumage during winter. The only differences
between the male and the female are, a slight inferiority of the latter as to
size, and a somewhat less depth of colouring. Like the other species, they now
and then alight on a top branch for an instant, in the manner used by other
This lively roamer of our forests extends its rambles from the Texas, where
I found it abundant, to the shores of the Columbia river, from which country
specimens were brought by Mr. TOWNSEND. It is not mentioned as having been
found in the Fur Countries.
WHITE-BREASTED AMERICAN NUTHATCH, Sitta carolinensis, Wils. Amer. Orn.,vol. i. p. 10.
SITTA CAROLINENSIS, Bonap. Syn., p. 96.
WHITE-BREASTED AMERICAN NUTHATCH, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 581.
WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCH, Sitta carolinensis, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. ii.p. 299; vol. v. p. 473.
Bill straight, of the length of the head, very hard, conico-subulate, a
little compressed, acute; upper mandible with the dorsal outline very slightly
arched, the edges sharp towards the point; lower mandible smaller, of equal
length, straight. Nostrils basal, round, half-closed by a membrane, partially
covered by the frontal feathers. The general form is short and compact. Feet
rather strong, the hind toe stout, and as long as the middle toe, with a strong
hooked claw; the claws arched, compressed, acute.
Plumage soft, blended, with little gloss, excepting on the head. Wings
rather short, broad, the second primary longest. Tail short, broad, even, of
twelve rounded feathers.
Bill black, pale blue at the base of the lower mandible. Iris dark brown.
Feet brown. The upper part of the head and the hind neck deep black, glossed
with blue, that colour curving down on either side of the neck at its base. The
back, wing, and tail-coverts, and middle feathers of the tail light
greyish-blue. Quills black, edged with bluish-grey; three lateral tail feathers
black, with a broad band of white near the end, the rest black, excepting the
middle ones. The sides of the heady space above the eye, fore neck and breast
white; abdomen and lower tail-coverts brownish-red, with white tips; under
Length 5 1/4 inches, extent of wings 11; bill along the ridge 8/12, along
the gap 10/12; tarsus 8/12, middle toe 10/12.
The female resembles the male.
Common from Texas to Maine. Throughout the interior to the Columbia.
On the roof of the mouth are three anterior ridges, of which the middle is
larger; both mandibles are slightly concave, the lower with a median elevated
line. Tongue 6 twelfths long, emarginate and finely papillate at the base,
slender, very thin, the point abrupt, and terminated by several strong bristles.
OEsophagus, Fig. 1 [a b c],
1 inch 10 twelfths long, funnel-shaped at the commencement,
its width being there 4 twelfths, and then gradually diminishing to 2 twelfths.
The stomach, [c d], is rather large, broadly elliptical, 7 1/2 twelfths long, 6
twelfths broad; its lateral muscles thin; the epithelium slightly rugous. It is
filled with insects and larvae. Intestine, [e f g h], rather short and wide, 7
inches in length, its greatest width 2 twelfths; the rectum, [i j], 3 twelfths
wide; the cloaca 4 twelfths; the coeca, [i], 2 twelfths long, 3/4 twelfth in
breadth, and 10 twelfths from the extremity. The trachea is 1 1/2 inches long,
1 twelfth in breath; its rings feeble, 75 in number. The sterno-tracheal
muscles very slender; the inferior laryngeal form on each side a small knob,
inserted into the last half ring in its whole extent. Bronchial half rings
about 12. There is on each side an elongated salivary gland, about 3/4 twelfth
in breadth. The hyoid bones are not unusually elongated. In the form of the
tongue the Nuthatches resemble the Titmice.