The Missouri Department of Conservation recently released a group of brown-headed nuthatches into woodlands, marking the bird’s return to the state after being locally extinct for more than a century.
Sarah Kendrick, state ornithologist, said the small songbirds were extirpated, or made locally extinct, in Missouri likely around the 1930s or 1940s following the removal of the state’s last swaths of shortleaf pine woodlands across the Missouri Ozarks.
She said millions of acres of pine woodland existed in the state prior to widespread logging in the Ozarks in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The regenerated forest today is dominated by oaks and hickories that replaced pines after their removal.
Last week, the conservation department and partners began releasing nuthatches from Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas to sites within the Mark Twain National Forest that have been managed with tree-thinning and prescribed fire for up to 20 years.
The goal this year is to reintroduce 50 birds. Another 50 birds will be released in August 2021.
The Mark Twain National Forest site was chosen for the release because it is the largest area of open pine woodlands in the state.
Kendrick said the brown-headed nuthatch is a small songbird that measures 4 inches in length.
The species is a non-migratory, year-round resident. The birds are relatively weak fliers so their dispersal a few hundred miles north without connecting shortleaf pine habitat is unlikely.
There was a coordinated effort involving state and federal partners in both Arkansas and Missouri to capture nuthatches on the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas, fly them to Missouri and release them in the Mark Twain National Forest.
Researchers on the project had determined that sufficient woodlands now exist in Missouri to support a population of brown-headed nuthatches, that populations in Arkansas were robust enough to supply birds to Missouri and that nuthatches are not likely to make the return on their own because of the distance and habitat fragmentation.
“Brown-headed nuthatches are pine specialists and excavate their own cavities in pine tree snags, or dead trees, every year,” Kendrick said. “By creating new cavities each year, these birds provide cavities for other cavity-nesters, like chickadees and titmice.”
Half of the birds are being tagged with tiny radio-transmitters that allow scientists to track their movements. So far the tagged birds are behaving as expected and socializing in groups.
The conservation department encourages birders to visit the shortleaf pineries after the reintroduction to look for the birds and listen for the unique call of the species.
The reintroduction efforts for the bird species were done in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service’s Mark Twain National Forest, Ouachita National Forest and Northern Research Station, the University of Missouri and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
For more information about the brown-headed nuthatch and to hear its call, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website at www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Brown-headed_Nuthatch/overview.