Sitta pygmaea melanotis

Status:  Common regular resident west. Accidental summer breeder and visitor north. Common regular winter visitor northwest, rare casual elsewhere.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM11875, 16 Jun 1966 Monroe Canyon, Sioux Co.

Taxonomy: There are six subspecies (Clements et al 2016), three in Mexico, and these in the USA and Canada: melanotis, from southwest Canada and mountains of western and west-central USA south to northwest Mexico, pygmaea, of coastal California, and leuconucha, of southwest California and Baja California. Nebraska birds are melanotis.

Resident: Until very recent reports from Cherry and Thomas Cos (below), Pygmy Nuthatch was restricted as a breeder to ponderosa pines on the Pine Ridge, Wildcat Hills in Scotts Bluff Co, and likely in the Bighorn Escarpment, preferring open woodland in dry canyons and on ridge tops (Rosche 1982).

On the Pine Ridge, confirmed breeding records are recent; the first was in 1957, when a juvenile male was collected 18 Jul five miles north of Harrison, Sioux Co from a family group (Ford 1959). There were only four additional confirmed records of breeding until Mollhoff (2016) reported confirmed breeding in 15 atlas blocks on the Pine Ridge, three in the Wildcat Hills and unconfirmed reports in the Bighorn Escarpment. The range in the Pine Ridge has extended eastward; Rosche (1982) stated that it occurred to about five miles east of Chadron, Dawes Co as a resident, and by 1996 it was common at Chadron SP, Dawes Co, when up to 18 were reported 1 Aug-15 Sep. The first two nests for Sheridan Co were found by Mollhoff at Metcalf WMA 31 May 1997 (Mollhoff 1997). The only other report from Sheridan Co is of three near Whiteclay in northern Sheridan Co 30 May 2016.  There are no South Dakota records in this area into the early 2000s (Tallman et al 2002), but there is a recent sighting across the border near Pine Ridge, South Dakota, and a recent breeding record northwest of Allen, South Dakota (Drilling et al 2016).

Following several suggestive observations, breeding was confirmed in the Wildcat Hills in 1996, when a pair built a nest in an artificial snag outside the Wildcat Hills NC, Scotts Bluff Co 16 May (Silcock 1996). This site was again in use 27 May 2006 and 24 May 2007, and Pygmy Nuthatch is now established in the area. Expansion has continued south and east into the Bighorn Escarpment, where seven were seen in canyons south of Redington, Morrill Co in 2010.

Unexpected was the presence of a pair at Steer Creek Campground, NNF McKelvie, Cherry Co 19 Jul 2008; four, including a territorial pair, were there 4 Jun 2011.

A further surprise was a pair nesting at NNF Bessey, Thomas Co 18 Jun 2014. Again, in 2017, three, possibly involving two pairs, were seen there, including one carrying food 29 May. Five, two photographed, were on Scott Tower Trail there 30 Jun 2019. These birds may have dispersed during winter from the Pine Ridge and remained in the suitable habitat that exists at those NNF locations. There were no prior records for this location.

  • Breeding Phenology:
    Nest-building: 23 Apr
    Eggs: 10-22 May
    Nestlings: 3-11 Jun
    Fledglings: 12 Jun-8 Aug
  • High counts: 25 at Chadron Creek WMA, Dawes Co 1 Sep 2016, 25 at Gilbert-Baker WMA, Sioux Co 29 Mar 2020, 20 in East Ash Canyon, Dawes Co 5 Sep 2015.

Winter: During winter, sedentary local populations are supplemented by occasional influxes from elsewhere. Flocks as large as 50-100 birds may form in fall and move short distances from breeding areas, especially to lower elevations (Bent 1946).  Of interest is Rosche’s statement (1982) that this species stages periodic flights eastward from the Laramie Mountains in Wyoming in fall, especially along the Pine Ridge.  One such irruption occurred on the eastern Colorado Plains in fall 2000 (Kingery and Ghalambor 2020). Probable Nebraska examples of this phenomenon were the Crawford CBC count of 49 birds 16 Dec 1979, a count of 51 in Sioux and Dawes Cos 17 Jan 2000, and the Harrison CBC count of 104 birds 1 Jan 2006. Similarly, it has appeared fairly regularly in the Scottsbluff area 7 Sep-21 Dec, likely also birds from Wyoming. During these winter movements, birds may be found in deciduous woodland, especially along watercourses (Johnsgard 1980).

A purported “family group” in pines in Sheridan Co 15 Nov 1980 (Williams 1981) were likely fall wanderers; Pygmy Nuthatch has been known to breed in Sheridan Co only since 1997 (see above). A group of eight in limber pines near Pine Bluffs in Kimball Co 18 Oct 2020 may have moved south from the Pine Ridge 0r the Wildcat Hills in Scotts Bluff/Banner Cos, or eastward from Wyoming.

Reports of winter visitors in the west away from ponderosa pines include three at Smith Lake, Sheridan Co, 15 Nov 1980 (Rosche 1982) and three there 26 Aug 2018, one at Bushnell Cemetery, Kimball Co 25 Aug 2014, three at I-80 Exit 1, Kimball Co 2 Sep 2018, one nearby at Pine Bluffs, Kimball Co 1 May 2021, one carefully studied and heard at Ash Hollow SHP, Garden Co 25 Oct 2000, and two at a North Platte Cemetery. Lincoln Co 6 Jan-25 Feb 2013.  The latter two sightings suggest that there is some eastward movement on rare occasions in the Platte River Valley that may have led to the four extraordinary winter records in Lancaster Co since 1961. As many as four remained in pine and pin oak (Quercus palustris) woodland in Lincoln 31 Dec 1961-3 Feb 1962 (Harrington 1962), one was photographed in pines at Pioneers’ Park, Lincoln, 1-4 Nov 2008, a single bird was at Holmes Lake, Lincoln 24 Apr-6 May 2009, and another was at the same location 16-23 Oct 2009.

Another example of eastward movement in fall occurred in 2017. There was a large influx of this species into the Pine Ridge in October and Wildcat Hills in November, preceded by scattered reports in Banner and Scotts Bluff Cos away from ponderosa pines, and followed by a series of reports near North Platte, Lincoln Co. Initial movement was detected in Sep, when three were in non-pine habitat in southwest Banner Co 4 Sep, and one was at Scotts Bluff NM, Scotts Bluff Co 10 Sep, a non-breeding location. In Oct, an amazing 60 were counted in East Ash Canyon, Dawes Co 13 Oct; at about the same time one was in an agricultural area north of Mitchell in Scotts Bluff Co 27 Oct. Numbers were high in the Wildcat Hills by late Nov; 17 were there 25 Nov, at about the same time 1-2 were found 4-25 Nov near North Platte.

  • High counts: 55 in Sowbelly Canyon, Sioux Co 6 Jan 2021, 51 in Sioux and Dawes Cos 17 Jan 2000, and 43 at Ponderosa WMA, Dawes Co 30 Dec 2020.


CBC: Christmas Bird Count
NC: Nature Center
NNF: Nebraska National Forest
NM: National Monument
SHP: State Historical Park
SP: State Park
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)


Photograph (top) of a Pygmy Nuthatch at North Platte, Lincoln Co 14 Nov 2017 by Joel G. Jorgensen.

Literature Cited

Bent, A.C. 1946. Life histories of North American Jays, Crows and Titmice. Bulletin of the United States National Museum 191. Two Parts. Dover Publications Reprint 1964, New York, New York, USA.

Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2016. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2016, accessed 30 January 2018.

Drilling, N.E., R.A. Sparks, B.J. Woiderski, and J.P. Beason. 2016. South Dakota Breeding Bird Atlas II: Final   Report. Tech. Rep. M-SDBBA2-07. Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, Brighton, Colorado, USA.

Ford, N.L. 1959. Notes on summer birds of western Nebraska. NBR 27: 6-12.

Harrington, R. 1962. Pygmy Nuthatches at Lincoln. NBR 30: 29.

Johnsgard, P. A. 1980. A preliminary list of the birds of Nebraska and adjacent Great Plains states. Published by the author, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA.

Kingery, H.E. and C.K. Ghalambor. 2020. Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Mollhoff, W.J. 1997. Notes on the nesting biology of Pygmy Nuthatches in Nebraska. NBR 65: 150-159.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2016. The Second Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas. Bull. Univ. Nebraska State Museum Vol 29. University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

Silcock, W.R. 1996. Spring Field Report, March-May 1996. NBR 64: 42-68.

Tallman, D.A., Swanson, D.L., and J.S. Palmer. 2002. Birds of South Dakota. Midstates/Quality Quick Print, Aberdeen, South Dakota, USA.

Williams, F. 1981. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 35: 198-201.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2021.  Pygmy Nuthatch (Sitta pygmaea). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 9 Jun 2021