Brown-Headed Nuthatch Reintroduced To Missouri Ozarks

Sep 15, 2020

Brown-Headed Nuthatch
Credit Vicki's Nature / Flickr

A bird that was extirpated from Missouri is once again living among short-leaf pines in the Mark Twain National Forest.

The brown-headed nuthatch is a resident or a non-migratory bird, according to state ornithologist, Sarah Kendrick, with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

They excavate cavities in dead pine trees to nest in each year.  Kendrick said they’re a pine woodland obligate, which means they need pine trees with open spacing between them to survive.  And they have a distinct call.

"They say, 'squeaka, squeaka.'  They sound like a rubber duckie, and no one ever believes me until they look it up and listen to it," she said.  "They say, 'it does sound like that!'"

Maintaining the brown-headed nuthatch’s habitat requires prescribed burns and tree thinning, according to Kendrick.

"They used to occur in the state," she said.  "We have records of them in the state from the early 1900s."

Missouri once had more than six million acres of shortleaf pine and oak woodland in the Ozarks region until logging depleted it.

"And, so, the birds disappeared.  We're not sure exactly when," she said, "but we guess in the early 1900s, sometimes after those last swaths of short leaf pines were removed from the state."

MDC and partners have been discussing trying to bring back the brown-headed nuthatch for around a decade.

Kendrick said the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project, a nationwide U.S. Forest Service program, awards grants for targeted forest landscape restoration.  And money from that program has been used for several years for the oak/pine woodland restoration project.  That’s in the Mark Twain National Forest in the Missouri Ozarks between Van Buren and Winona.

"It's been over 10 years in the making of just this intensive management of tree removal and prescribed fire on these compartments with time," said Kendrick.

After much discussion among experts, it was decided to move the birds from the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas to the restored oak/pine woodland in the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri.

Thirty-five brown-headed nuthatches were released in August.

"We just felt the time was right.  We looked for, you know, red flags or concerns from partners all along the way, and people are very very  excited about this project across a broad audience of different partners," said Kendrick.

The goal is to release a total of 50 of the birds this year and another 50 in September, 2021.

Kendrick said this is one piece of ecosystem restoration in Missouri.

"The birds occurred here.  Their official status is extirpated in the state," she said, "and, so,  we just feel it rounds out the restoration of this habitat and this ecosystem and just adds one of those pieces back that were kind of removed by actions that we took by removing most of that short leaf pine and woodland down in the Ozarks."

Radio transmitters were placed on half of the birds to monitor them for the first few weeks after release.  And the birds have been banded and will be monitored monthly for the first year.  Biologists will also watch for nest success in the spring.

Kendrick hopes, when the restoration is over, the public will take time to enjoy the restored oak/pine woodland and try to catch a glimpse of the brown-headed nuthatch that once again calls Missouri home.