American Ornithology: Volume 1.


Catesb. i. 22, fig. 2.
Lath. i. 650, B.
Briss. iii. p. 596, 4.
Sitta Carolinensis, Turton.
Sitta Europea, Gray Black-capped Nuthatch, Bartram, p. 289.
Peale’s Museum, No. 20, 36.

Sitta Carolinensis, Bonap. Synop. 96.
Sitta melanocephala, Vieill. Gal. des Ois. p. 280, pl. 174.

THE bill of this bird is black, the upper mandible straight, the lower one rounded upwards towards the point, and white near the base; the nostrils are covered with long curving black hairs; the tongue is of a horny substance, and ending in several sharp points; the general colour above is of a light blue or lead; the tail consists of twelve feathers, the two middle ones lead colour, the next three are black, tipt with white for one-tenth, one-fourth, and half of an inch; the two next are also black, tipt half an inch or more with white, which runs nearly an inch up their exterior edges, and both have the white at the tips touched with black; the legs are of a purple or dirty flesh colour; the hind claw is much the largest; the inside of the wing at the bend is black; below this is a white spot spreading over the roots of the first five primaries; the whole length is five inches and a half; extent, eleven.

Mr Pennant considers this bird as a mere variety of the European nuthatch; but if difference in size, colour, and habits, be sufficient characteristics of a distinct species, this bird is certainly entitled to be considered as such. The head and back of the European species is of a uniform bluish gray; the upper parts of the head, neck, and shoulders of ours, are a deep black glossed with green; the breast and belly of the former is a dull orange, with streaks of chestnut; those parts in the latter are pure white. The European has a line of black passing through the eye, half way down the neck; the present species has nothing of the kind, but appears with the inner webs of the three shortest secondaries and the primaries of a jet black; the latter tipt with white, and the vent and lower parts of the thighs of a rust colour: the European, therefore, and the present, are evidently two distinct and different species.[13]

[12] The true nuthatches, Sittæ (for I would not admit S. velata of Horsfield., and some allied species, nor the S. chrysoptera from New Holland), are all natives of Europe and South America. With this restriction of geographical distribution, the genus will contain only four species, three of which, S. Carolinensis, Canadensis, and pusilla, figured and described by our author, are confined to North America; and the fourth, S. Europea, has been only found in Europe. With regard to their situation in our systems, I would prefer placing them near to Certhia, Neops, Anabates, Dendrocolaptes, and not far distant from the titmice; with the former, they seem intimately connected, and there appears little in their structure in common with the woodpeckers, except the act of running up the trunks of trees. In habit and general economy they resemble the titmice, always actively employed in turning or twisting round the branches, or in running up or down the trunks, for they do both with equal facility, searching after the insects, or their eggs and larvæ, which lie concealed under the moss or loose bark; but occasionally also, like them, feeding upon different grains, on the seeds of the pine cones, as mentioned by our author in his description of the red-bellied species; or, according to Montagu, like the S. Europea frequenting the orchards during the cider season, and picking the seeds from the refuse of the pressed apples. In a state of confinement they will thrive well upon raw meat or fat, and if taken at a proper age, become extremely familiar and amusing; if not, they will most likely destroy themselves in their endeavours to get free from confinement, as mentioned by the anonymous writer of an interesting account of this bird in Loudon’s “Magazine of Natural History”. I had lately an opportunity of observing a nest of our native species which bad been taken young. They became remarkably tame; and, when released from their cage, would run over their owner in all directions, up or down his body and limbs, poking their bills into seams or holes, as if in search of food upon some old and rent tree, and uttering, during the time, a low and. plaintive cry. When running up or down, they rest upon the back part of the whole tarsus, and make great use as a support of what may be called the real heel, and never use the tail. Their bills are comparatively strong, and the power they possess of using them great, equal apparently to that of a woodpecker of like size. They breed in hollow trees, and produce a rather numerous brood. The male attends carefully during the time. According to Montagu, our British species chooses the deserted habitation of some woodpecker. “The hole is first contracted by a plaster of clay, leaving only sufficient room for itself to pass out and in; the nest is made of dead leaves, chiefly those of the oak, which are heaped together without much order. If the barrier of plaster at the entrance is destroyed when they have eggs, it is speedily replaced,—a peculiar instinct to prevent their nest being destroyed by the wood-pecker, and other birds of superior size, which build in the same manner.” Or, as Mr Rennie, in his late edition of the same work, thinks probable, the wall may be to prevent the unfledged young from tumbling out of the nest when they begin to stir about. It is probable that the nuthatch does not look forward to any of these considerations; and although the effects above mentioned may be in reality the consequence, I should conceive the hole contracted as being really too large, and as increasing the heat and apparent comfort within. When roosting, they sleep with the head and back downwards, in the manner of several titmice.—Ed.[return]

[13] Wilson is perfectly correct in considering this species as distinct from that of Europe; he has marked out the distinctions well in the description. It is described by Vieillot as Sitta melanocephala.—Ed.[return]