Brown-Headed Nuthatches Are Back in the Ozarks for the First Time in a Century

An effort to restore the region's historic woodlands is showing signs of success. Now conservationists hope to reestablish the long-gone songbirds.

The distinctive rubber ducky squeak of the Brown-headed Nuthatch can once more be heard in Missouri’s Ozarks.

The tiny songbird, an energetic brown, white, and gray-blue acrobat that flits from tree to tree, was extirpated from the state in the early 1900s as loggers felled millions of acres of shortleaf pine woodlands and land managers suppressed the natural wildfires that burned through these areas. Nuthatches lost nesting sites—they typically excavate cavities in dead trees—and found the hard oaks and hickories that replaced pines didn’t provide a hearty winter diet.

Nearly a hundred years later, Midwestern conservationists spearheaded sizable efforts to restore the historic landscape. They thinned out overplanted hardwoods, reintroduced prescribed fires, and seeded pines in Mark Twain National Forest and on private lands. Now their work is paying off.

“We are finally at a point now where we have sufficient habitat,” says Thomas Bonnot, a University of Missouri wildlife ecologist involved in the restoration. “We are confident that we can keep those pine woodlands such that it’s safe to bring the species back.”

In late August a team began to relocate 46 birds from the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas to the restored tracts. Brown-headed Nuthatches are relatively weak fliers, says Bonnot, and it’s unlikely they would have made the 300-mile northward trek themselves. He and his colleagues banded the arrivals and fitted some with trackers and will be watching to see if the population can sustain its numbers and grow.

Maintaining the birds’ habitat with prescribed fires will be a long-term effort, says Sarah Kendrick, state ornithologist at the Missouri Department of Conservation. The work is part of a larger plan to revive roughly a million acres of a lost ecosystem across Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. If all goes well for the relocated nuthatches this year, the team plans to release another 54 individuals next summer.

The reintroduction is also a proof of concept. The Brown-headed Nuthatch, like many other species, may lose large portions of its current range as the global climate warms and precipitation patterns change. But higher latitudes could offer places to retreat—or areas where they may expand into new territory, if they can get there. “As birds start to move northward, we’ve got to make sure that there’s habitat available for them,” Bonnot says. “This is a really great example of a chance to evaluate how well we can do that.”

This story originally ran in the Winter 2020 issue as “Northern Bound.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today