White Breasted Nuthatch
( Originally Published Ealry 1900's )
The busy nuthatch climbs his tree,
" With more artless inquisitiveness than fear, this lively little acrobat stops his hammering or hatching at your approach, and stretching himself out from the tree until it would seem he must fall off, he peers down at you, head downward, straight into your upturned opera-glass. If there is too much snow on the upper side of a branch watch how he runs along underneath it like a fly, busily tapping the bark, or adroitly breaking the decayed bits with his bill, as he stretches for the spider's eggs, larvae, etc., hidden there; yet somehow, between mouthfuls, managing to call out his cherry quank! quank ! hank ! hank ! "— NELTJE BLANCHAN.
A VOICE outside is calling at me; I cannot describe it accurately, but it is making delightful woodsy remarks that make me long to throw aside the pen and go out and wander where the snow is making still softer the carpet of dead leaves on the forest floor. It is not a musical note but it is most enticing and translates into sound the picture of bare-branched trees and the feeling of enchantment that permeates the forest in win-ter. Neltje Blanchan says the voice reiterates " quank, quank," others say it is " nay, nay "—but no nasal sound of the human voice, and no spelling of the English language adequately represent this call of the white-breasted nuthatch.
On the tree in front of the window I can see the owner of this sylvan voice. He is a little bird blue-gray above with black head and black and white V-trimmings on the back of his suit, and with soft, white breast. He is flitting blithely from tree to tree ejoying the snow storm, and coming often to the suet feast which I have spread for him and for his little feathered kin.
We have been having exciting times at the suet banquet this morning. The building in which my office is, stands on a high knoll near the forest-covered brink of a deep gorge. Thus my window is opposite the tops of the trees. One of our nature-study staff, a brave and gallant knight, who loves birds and knows that I love to watch them, climbed two of these trees at imminent risk of breaking his neck in order to place this suet just opposite my window. The whole chickadee family and four nut-hatches, and Sir Downy and Madam Hairy had been reveling in the feast all the morning when suddenly one after another three crows appeared upon the scene. My heart sank as I saw them eying the suet with interest. Nearer and nearer they hopped from branch to branch. I pounded on the window and called out, " Go away " in both the crow and the English language, all in vain. One crow braver or hungrier than the others with one defiant eye on me flapped confidently down and sought to carry the' suet off in its beak; to his surprise it was' tied on. That seemed suspicious and when we raised the window and leaning far out explained matters he lifted slowly with a jeering " caw " that said plainly " I'll call some-time when you are not at home " and with that he and his companions disappeared up the gorge. The invited guests at the suet table were less disturbed than was I, and I suppose it is rather inconsistent to feed the chickadees and let the ravens go hungry. But this suet will last the little birds a month while it would hardly furnish a breakfast for three crows; and in philanthropic enter-prises one is obliged to draw the line somewhere even at the cost of consistency.
I will return to my nuthatch, who, by the way, has just hammered off a piece of suet and thrust it into a crevice of the bark on the tree bole. Why does he do that : is it for convenience in eating or is it an attempt to store up some of his dinner for future need? Anyway it is bad manners, like carrying off fruit from table d' hote. But he is polite enough in another respect; every time after eating the suet he wipes his beak on his branch napkin with great assiduity, first one side and then the other, almost as if he were sharpening it. The woodpeckers are similarly fastidious in cleaning suet off their beaks.
The loud note of the nuthatch, seeming to be out of proportion to the size of the bird is, by no means, its only note. Yesterday we observed a pair hunting over the branches of an elm over our heads, and they were talking to each other in sweet confidential syllables " wit, wit, wit," entirely different from the loud note that is meant for the world at large.
The nuthatches and chicadées hunt together all winter. This is no business partnership, but one of congeniality based upon similar tastes. Thus it is that the two birds are often confused. There is, however, a very noticeable character that distinguishes them at the first glance. Strange to say the nuthatch has also been confused with the sapsucker and has gained unjust obloquy thereby. How any one with eyes could confuse these two birds is a mystery, for they resemble each other in no particular nor in general appearance.
While the nuthatch finds much of its food on trees, yet Mr. Torrey tell of seeing one awkwardly turning over the fallen leaves for hidden cocoons and other things quite worth his while; and Mr. Baskett tells of having seen them catch flies in the air and becoming quite out of breath at this unusual exercise.
Audubon made some most interesting observations on the nuthatch. He says they may sleep hanging head downward. He also says of their nesting habits that " both birds work together, all the time congratulating each other in the tenderest manner. The male, ever conspicuous on such occasions, works some, and carries off the slender chips chiseled by the female. He struts around her, peeps into the hole, cherups at intervals, or hovers about her on the wing. While she is sitting on her eggs, he seldom absents himself many moments ; now with a full bill he feeds, now returns to be assured that her time is pleasantly spent."
The red-breasted nuthatch is sometimes associated with its white-breasted cousin; it is a smaller bird and is essentially a northern species. The nuthatches get their name from their habit of wedging nuts and acorns into bark and then hatching them open. From every stand-point the nuthatches are most desirable acquaintances, and we cannot spend our time to better advantage than in getting familiar with their interesting habits.