The Acrobatic Nuthatch

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Photo by Joan Heffernan

The white-breasted nuthatch opts for a head first descent down the tree.

Around this time of year my face is pressed to the window by our bird feeder watching the nuthatches scrabble up and down the tree trunks. The white breasted nuthatch is a fairly common visitor in these parts. I remember seeing them as a child, and, less commonly, the red breasted nuthatch which is smaller with a very cool eye stripe and, obviously, red on his breast. 

My mom hung a log sheet on our ice box, as dad called it. There we kept track of the bird species that we saw throughout the winter at our feeder. We all took this very seriously, but clearly some of our wisenheimer friends did not as they frequently added exotic species to the list. These needed to be crossed out with black ink as this was no laughing matter. So, if something unusual stopped by our feeder, we’d make a record of it and put away the Lincoln logs and trolls to relish being in its company. 

I believe the red breasted nuthatch was one of those visitors. After he hung around for a while, I decided to share our bird finding with the Smith sisters down the street. I toddled off, and my folks were probably glad about that. I wouldn’t eat my beets or brush my hair or do much at all in a civilized fashion, so an hour spent on the sunporch of the Smith sisters seemed like a smart move. The ladies had the patience of saints, and clearly came from the right stock as their dad was a missionary and a naturalist, and our town forest, the Jesse Fowler Smith Forest, bears his name.

So the sisters in their cardigan sweaters and calico blouses welcomed me with open arms. They told me about the birds, and we thumbed through the pages of their books pausing at pictures of some of the more exotic specimens. After I added my fingerprints to most of their windows, smudged the eye pieces on their binoculars and ate all their graham crackers, off I went home wondering what my brothers were up to.

Fast forward multiple decades, and bird sightings at the feeder are still a big deal. To this day, I record the unusual visitors and share any bird activities with my fellow nature enthusiasts. We’ve been comparing notes on nuthatches, and the white breasted nuthatch is a common visitor to our suet. He’s been very entertaining, with his multiple trips around the tree trunk, up and down, backwards and forwards. He prefers the road less traveled, especially if that involves lapping the circumference of the tree several times. He has a large head, short tail and a strong bill. According to my reading, he is clever enough to store seeds for later consumption. He does this by jamming nuts and seeds under pieces of bark. Any animal or human who participates in stockpiling food warms my heart. So, on these wintry afternoons, when I am hoarding dozens of packages of mint Milanos, I’ll dismiss it as channeling my inner nuthatch. And, when I think of him, I’ll be reminded of my days with some pretty special people, too. Special people who happened to love birds. 

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