Sitta carolinensis carolinensis, S. c. nelsoni

Status:  Common regular resident east, central, and northwest. Uncommon regular winter visitor statewide.


Documentation:  Specimens: carolinensis: UNSM ZM11608, 23 Mar 1895 Lancaster Co; nelsoni: UNSM ZM6557, 14 Jun 1901 Warbonnet Canyon, Sioux Co.

Taxonomy:  Pyle (1997) and Clements et al (2016) recognized nine subspecies, four of which occur in Mexico; the others are: aculeata of coastal southwest British Columbia to southwest California, tenuissima of southeast British Columbia to western Wyoming, wintering to New Mexico and Kansas, nelsoni from Montana to Arizona east to eastern Wyoming, southwest South Dakota, and northwestern Nebraska, south to western Oklahoma and western Texas, oberholseri of southwest Texas, and carolinensis from Saskatchewan and southeast Texas to New Brunswick and Florida.

Grubb and Pravosudov (2020) divided the subspecies into three “call” groups: Eastern US and Canada birds, uttering a nasal “yenk”, Great Basin and Rocky Mountains birds a rapid “yijijijijiji”, and Pacific Slope birds a high-pitched, drawn-out “yaarn”. These call groups are genetically distinguishable (Spellman and Klicka 2007). Northern birds within the range of carolinensis were previously assigned to cookei, which was merged with carolinensis as their differences were clinal (Pyle 1997); Phillips (1986), however, retained them as separate taxa, cookei averaging larger.

In Nebraska, nelsoni of the Rocky Mountains Group breeds on the Pine Ridge, and carolinensis of the Eastern Group in riparian corridors and forests in the rest of the state (AOU 1957), including the North Platte River Valley. Pyle (1997) suggested that since movement patterns of this species are poorly known, unexpected subspecies might occur during winter. Most likely would be tenuissima, which winters southeastward to Kansas (Pyle 1997).

Sightings and photographs on the Pine Ridge Jun-Jul 2019 noted equivocal features suggestive of some level of introgression between nelsoni and carolinensis (Steve Mlodinow, Michael Willison, pers. comm.), probably as might be expected at range boundaries between subspecies.

Changes Since 2000: Reports have increased since 2000 west of Lake McConaughy in the North Platte River Valley as far as Scotts Bluff Co suggesting continued expansion westward by carolinensis.

Resident: White-breasted Nuthatch is generally understood to be sedentary, although its movements are poorly known. It is, however, a rare to uncommon winter visitor in areas of Nebraska where it does not occur in summer, noticeably in western towns, cities, and river valleys wherever large trees are present. See Winter.

Published records of breeding (Ducey 1988) and reports of occurrence in summer months reflect the preference of this species for mature woodland in the eastern parts of Nebraska, the Niobrara River Valley, eastern Platte and Republican River Valleys, and in ponderosa pine woodland on the Pine Ridge. There is a sharp decline in numbers away from these habitats, although recent reports suggest some range expansion.

The western subspecies nelsoni breeds on the Pine Ridge, where it is common (Rosche 1982). This is the only breeding location known in Nebraska for this subspecies. Summer reports from the Wildcat Hills, Scotts Bluff and Banner Cos, are few but recent, suggesting that a breeding population might establish, although subspecies has not been reported; these reports are 11 Jun 2016 in Carter Canyon, two there 12 Jun 2014, 3 Jul 2000 along Stage Hill Road, and 8 Jul 2017 and 17 Jul 2005 at Wildcat Hills NC. Reports 10 Mar and 10 Apr 1996, and 31 Mar and 18 Apr 2020 may have been of winter visitors.

Recent reports from Sheridan Co near and south of the Pine Ridge are suggestive of some range expansion: one was at the Highway 27 crossing of the Niobrara River 18 Jun 2017, and singles were in Gordon 1 and 9 Jul 2017.

This species is common to uncommon westward along the Niobrara River Valley wherever deciduous woodland occurs (Brogie and Mossman 1983); westernmost reports are from northeast Cherry Co: Steer Creek Campground, NNF McKelvie 3 Jun 2017, NNF McKelvie 5 Jun 2011, Road 16F at the Niobrara River 14 Jun 2015, and Merritt Reservoir 12 Jul 2016, as well as several reports from Valentine NWR and numerous records from the Valentine area. Two birds were at Nenzel, Cherry Co 28 May 2020. At least one bird was noted at Smith Lake, Sheridan Co, 30 Aug 1998, located on a tributary of the Niobrara River, and an occupied nest has been found there. Another was at Smith Lake 31 May 2020.

It breeds throughout the Loup drainage, west to Thomas Co, where it is an “uncommon permanent resident” (Bray 1994); there are isolated sightings about 12 miles west of Callaway in Custer Co 22 Jul 2001 and between Stapleton and North Platte in Lincoln Co 17 Jul 2015.

White-breasted Nuthatches breed regularly westward in the North Platte River Valley to the Lake McConaughy area and in lower numbers west to the Wyoming border; calls of summering birds in Scotts Bluff Co are of the eastern subcpecies (see Taxonomy). the first reports of the eastern subspecies in Scotts Bluff Co were in 2002: three at Riverside Park, Scottsbluff, 24 Aug 2002 gave eastern calls, as did one at Lake Minatare 17 May 2002. Breeding occurs into northeast Colorado in the South Platte River Valley. Expansion of the range westward in the North Platte Valley from Lake McConaughy is recent. It was reported at Oshkosh, Garden Co 15 Jul 1987 (Rosche 1994) and earliest reports in Scotts Bluff Co were at Stateline Island WMA 29 Jun and 9 Jul 1994 and 23 Aug 1996. Birds seen at Lake Minatare, Scotts Bluff Co 6-7 Sep 1997 were “probably breeding”, and one taking food from a feeder in Ogallala, Keith Co 13-14 May 2010 may have been feeding young. There are several recent reports without breeding evidence from Scotts Bluff Co May-Aug 2003-2019.

Rosche (1994) stated that it bred in the Republican River Valley west to Dundy Co, apparently a somewhat recent phenomenon, as Ludlow (1935) considered it only a “winter visitor and rare spring migrant” in Webster Co. Currently it breeds throughout the Republican River Valley (eBird.org, accessed Oct 2017).

  • Breeding phenology:
    Eggs: 29 Apr-28 May
    Nestlings: 9 May-5 Jul
    Fledglings: 21 May-20 Jul

Winter:   Aug 31, Sep 1, 3 <<<>>> May 15, 16, 17

The dates above are from areas where the species is not known to breed. While nuthatches are usually considered sedentary, some may disperse in fall to areas where the species may be rare or absent as a breeder (Phillips 1986). There are a few dates after mid-May in areas where habitat suggests breeding is possible but not known.

There are several reports of the Pine Ridge breeding subspecies nelsoni away from the breeding range, mostly directly southward: 25 Aug 2020 at Wildcat Hills NC, Scotts Bluff Co, 14 Sep 2013 Oliver Reservoir, Kimball Co, 16 Sep 2007 Lake Minatare, 20 Sep 2003 near Bushnell, 29 Sep 2012 Wind Springs Ranch, Sioux Co, 1 Feb 2021 Keith Co, 2 Feb 2019 Keith Co, 26 and 31 Mar and 18 Apr 2020 and 3 Mar 2021 Scotts Bluff Co. Birds in the Scottsbluff area 14 Dec 2002 and 20 Dec 2003 were identified as carolinensis, demonstrating that both subspecies may occur in areas of the Panhandle where they do not breed; carolinensis also occurs in winter on the Pine Ridge, where Steven Mlodinow (pers. comm.) has noted some “friendly” interactions between the two subspecies; in 2021, one was at Chadron Creek Ranch WMA, Dawes Co 25 May and two were at Fort Robinson, in Dawes Co, 27 May.

Comparing eBird maps (eBird.org, accessed 11 October 2016) for White-breasted Nuthatch for Jun-Jul to those for Dec-Feb indicates a noticeable increase in winter reports into the Platte and South Platte River Valleys. Even in areas where White-breasted Nuthatches do breed, reports are more numerous in the winter months than in summer, suggesting that there is movement into or within the state at that time.

  • High counts:  50 in Sarpy Co 17 Feb 2913, 43 at Arbor Lodge SHP, Otoe Co 27 Oct 2012 and 40 at a Saline Co farm 14 Feb 2021.


NC: Nature Center
NNF: Nebraska National Forest
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)


Photograph (top) of a White-breasted Nuthatch at Neale Woods, Douglas Co 22 Jan 2008 by Phil Swanson.

Literature Cited

American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1957. The AOU Check-list of North American birds, 5th ed.  Port City Press, Baltimore, Maryland, USA.

Bray, T.E., B.K. Padelford, and W.R. Silcock. 1986. The birds of Nebraska: A critically evaluated list. Published by the authors, Bellevue, Nebraska, USA.

Brogie, M.A., and M.J. Mossman. 1983. Spring and summer birds of the Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska: An annotated checklist. NBR 51: 44-51.

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.

Ducey, J.E. 1988. Nebraska birds, breeding status and distribution. Simmons-Boardman Books, Omaha, Nebraska, USA.

Grubb Jr., T.C. and V.V. Pravosudov. 2020. White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.whbnut.01.

Ludlow, C.S. 1935. A quarter-century of bird migration records at Red Cloud, Nebraska. NBR 3: 3-25.

Phillips, A.R. 1986. The known birds of North and Middle America. Part 1. Published by the author, Denver, Colorado, USA.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

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

Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska.  Published by the author, Chadron, Nebraska, USA.

Spellman, G.M., and J. Klicka. 2007. Phylogeography of the white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis): diversification in North American pine and oak woodlands. Molecular Ecology 16: 1729-1740.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2021.  White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis). In Birds of Nebraska — Online. www.BirdsofNebraska.org

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 9 Jun 2021