This tiny 4-inch-long bird frequents Ponderosa pine forests throughout the central mountains and western mountains of New Mexico, and also occurs in California and parts of Idaho, Washington, Oregon, the Black Hills of South Dakota and a few other scattered western forests. The blue-gray back contrasts with a brownish-gray crown and wings, with a lighter spot on the nape of the neck. A black stripe extends from the base of the beak through the eye, like a Lone Ranger mask. The neck and belly are normally white but often show some rusty coloring scattered over the sides and rump.
They are highly active, always on the move all around tree trunks and limbs, over, under, right side up and upside down, looking for food. They eat an assortment of insects they find on the surface of trees, such as beetles, caterpillars, wasps, and other insects, as well as pine seeds. They are sometimes seen foraging on the ground in the pine needle litter. Pygmys are very social and travel around in flocks. In winter groups of Pygmys will congregate together in cavities at night to share warmth, much like flying squirrels. Up to 100 birds have been reported using a single cavity.
Nests are in cavities that may be excavated by the adult pair. The female sits on the eggs and is fed by the male and occasionally other helper nuthatches which are normally offspring from the previous year. Research has shown that nests with such helpers that assist in guarding the nest and caring for young birds have greater nestling survival than nests with only the breeding pair attending.
While Pygmy nuthatches are very common in our Cibola National Forest Ponderosa pine forests, the Audubon Society reports that vulnerability status for Pygmy nuthatches is High due to coniferous forest habitat losses throughout the range of the species, primarily from forest fires, but spring heat waves also negatively impact the survival of nestlings.
James Taulman is a semi-retired research wildlife biologist, having worked with the U.S. Forest Service research branch and taught zoology, ecology, and other courses in several university positions. He is currently living in the East Mountains, and explores natural areas observing native wildlife and conducting independent research projects. See more wildlife on his YouTube channel.