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The Brown-Headed Nuthatch Is Back In Missouri After 100 Years Away

Missouri Department of Conservation
The brown-headed nuthatch was reintroduced to Missouri after the shortleaf pine population was restored to a level that would allow them to thrive.

The tiny brown-headed nuthatch and its squeaky song are back in a Missouri forest after being driven out by loss of habitat a century ago.

The bird, which is native to Missouri, lives in and around shortleaf pine trees. Early 20th-century logging, combined with forest management that allowed tree stands to become too dense, led to the bird retreating to more favorable habitats in other states.

But a consortium including the Missouri Department of Conservation, the University of Missouri and the Mark Twain National Forest has reintroduced the tiny birds, which are about the combined weight of a quarter and a nickel.

“They are just little, squeaky birds. They are cute. Grayish on the back, obviously with a brown head, with a white chest,” said Angelina Trombley, a biologist with Mark Twain.

For decades, forest management officials have been trying to thin out the Mark Twain, remove some of the hardwood trees that were overplanted and restore the soft, shortleaf pines.

Trombley said that effort has been successful enough that brown-headed nuthatch could come back.

“Years from now, if this bird is still here, and we expect the population to grow, then, to us, that really demonstrates to people that what we are doing is right,” Trombley said. “We are bringing back a species that was here but was forced out.”

The brown-headed nuthatch doesn’t migrate and is a year-round inhabitant of the forest. It relies upon the shortleaf pine trees for food and shelter.

“They forage for both insects and the seeds in the cones. And they excavate their own nesting cavities in the trees every single year,” said State Ornithologist Sarah Kendrick. “And so we can manage for these habitat characteristics specifically with tree thinning and prescribed fire regimes.”

Theresa Davidson
The tiny nuthatches were fitted with bands or radio transmitters to help track their progress.

Kendrick said that while bringing back the nuthatch is primarily a victory to restore habitats for native species, it also can have an economic benefit.

“Birding and wildlife watching are growing in popularity, and birding is an economic driver. With lodging, fuel and equipment, they spend a lot of money,” Kendrick said.

The consortium of conservationists and biologists released 25 brown-headed nuthatches in August that were brought in from Arkansas. They plan to release another 25 later this year and 50 next year.

The nuthatches are all banded, and some are wearing tiny radio transmitters so they can be tracked.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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