From The Heart Of The Swamp…B.I.R.D.S. – White-breasted Nuthatch

  • Thursday, November 7, 2013

Early on in my career at the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest, back when I was less of a Swamp Genius and more of a Swamp Gifted and Talented, my niece and nephew paid a visit. Naturally, I took them for a tour in the forest to properly educate them on all things swampy. After all, being raised in Ohio had left them with a terrible deficit of Swampology expertise. We toured the boardwalk as I pointed out things of interest and identified wildlife as we encountered it. I remember us seeing a White-breasted Nuthatch walking sideways and upside down on the side of a tree and it kept poking its beak into the nooks and crannies of the bark, each time followed by a sideways turn of its head as if to peek into the nook he had just poked. They asked me what it was doing and I committed the cardinal sin of all naturalists by answering, “I don’t know.” Given that this was perhaps the third “I don’t know” of the morning the gifted little middle school darlings proceeded to invent a game they called, STUMP THE NATURALIST, and took great glee in proposing impossibly complicated nature questions with no hope of answering…”How many crayfish are there in the entire swamp?” “Why is a Prothontary Warbler yellow instead of purple?” “What is the meaning of life?” The image of them cheerfully high fiving each other every time I had to pass on answering or make up an obviously faked response still haunts the deepest recesses of my psyche.

Given that the sight of White-breasted Nuthatches to this day continues to trigger the memory of that visit, it is a wonder that I am so excited about the third sculpture installation in the B.I.R.D.S. (Birds In Residence: Downtown Summerville) program. Unveiled at last month’s Third Thursday in the historic downtown, the diminutive sculpture of a White-breasted Nuthatch now graces the side of the Single Smile Café on the corner of Doty and Little Main. As a quick reminder… the BIRDS program is a partnership between the Audubon Center at Beidler Forest, Summerville DREAM and Sculpture in the South and designed to promote public art, support downtown businesses, and celebrate the birds and natural history of the Town. 20 life-like and life-sized bird sculptures will be hidden away throughout the historic district and participants will use a clue poem to find them and in so doing, circumnavigate the four corners of downtown Summerville.

Adapted to suburban life, non-migratory, pretty common to Summerville and year-round residents, the White-breasted Nuthatch is a fitting species for the BIRDS program! Look for them all over town and your neighborhoods usually climbing around on the branches and trunks of large deciduous trees. They are tiny with a very short neck and tail and an interesting habit of walking sideways and upside down on the sides of tree trunks and the underside of limbs and branches. Country folk from decades past may have called them “devil-downheads” or “devil birds” because they were always “looking down at their master the Devil!” I have since learned that the poking around in the bark serves a couple purposes. They are either hunting for small insects living in the bark or searching for seeds and nuts that they have stored in the bark. Kind of like me and my car keys! They get their common name from their habit of jamming large nuts and acorns into tree bark, then whacking them with their sharp bill to “hatch” out the seed from the inside. If you would like to attract them to your back yard feeder, consider providing larger seeds and nuts like sunflower or peanuts. They also like suet. In addition, it might be good to leave a dead or dying tree or two as they nest in cavities either natural or woodpecker-created.

Nuthatches are a noisy bunch with the male’s mating call a very nasally qui-qui-qui-qui-qui-qui. Plug your nose and say it and you will have a pretty good approximation. My wife tells me this is not very romantic sounding, but then she tells me that about a lot of things I do. Luckily, the male adds to his musical repertoire with a series of bows to the potential female mate, while spreading his tail, drooping his wings and swaying back and forth. For his finishing touch, he offers her morsels of food, probably a big juicy bug, the chocolate-covered strawberry of the bird world. Once paired off they are mated for life and the contact call between them is a thin squeaky nit repeated about once every two seconds. The female lays between 5-9 eggs in the cavity nest and she alone incubates them while the mail brings her food. Pretty sweet deal! Once hatched, the two share the feeding of the young.

Predators of Nuthatches include owls and smaller hawks while woodpeckers, squirrels and small snakes will take the eggs and babies. So much for Disney-fied animal life here in idyllic Summerville! It has been said that nature is red in tooth and claw. Sometimes nuthatches smear the guts of stink bugs and blister beetles around the opening of their cavity as the smell apparently dissuades squirrels from either steeling the young or steeling the whole cavity! Must be that nuthatches don’t have much of a sense of smell!

There are more BIRDS in the works, so continue to be on the lookout for new sculptures in the program. They will be life-sized and in out-of-the-way locations, so you will have to search for them! If you have any questions about the BIRDS program or how to sponsor a BIRD, about Nuthatches, about annoying middle schoolers or about the Beidler Forest, please contact Mike Dawson the Swamp Genius at mdawson@audubon.org, or call 843-462-2150.

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