This bird is almost an entire stranger to most people. It belongs to the rather large family of creepers; birds which, like the woodpecker and the little golden-crested wren, run up the holes and branches of trees in search of food. The nuthatch, however, has an advantage over all its other creeping relatives, by being gifted with the power of coming down the tree head foremost, which none of them have. It can also sleep with its head downwards; neither in its rapid ascent has it occasion to press its tail against the tree for help; so that it is the most accomplished little acrobat of the whole race of creepers.
The nuthatch cannot be called a rare bird, and yet it is not often seen, being of a shy and retiring disposition, though naturally lively and active. The plumage is very pleasing in colour; the upper parts of the body are bluish-grey; a black line passes from the corners of the mouth to the back of the neck; the breast and under parts light reddish-yellow, and the sides reddish-brown.
It delights in woods and trees; nor need it be looked for elsewhere, as it derives its food entirely amongst them, either of insects and larvee, hidden in the bark, or of fruits and nuts, as kernels of fir-cones, beech, and other nuts, the shells of which it breaks in a very ingenious manner, as I shall presently describe. Now and then it alights on the ground, and then advances by short leaps. It has no song; but in winter, when living in small companies, perhaps the whole summer-family associating together, it has a little piping note, which, however, is supposed to be simply the call to each other. It is said to be sensitive to the cold, and always feeds on the side of the wood or of the tree which is defended from the wind. In spring, however, when all nature is renovated with a quicker pulse of life -- for, as Tennyson says: --
then, also, the silent nuthatch sends forth through the awakening solitude of the woods his two little notes, one short and twittering, the other a low, mellow, flute-like whistle, which is so clear that it may be heard to a considerable distance.
The graphic author of the " British Birds " says, " It is, at all times, a busy and cheerful bird, particularly at nesting-time. Its favourite food is nuts of any kind. It builds and roosts in hollow trees, and is seldom seen in the open fields, unless when in quest of the stones of the white-thorn or sloe. It may, therefore, be properly called a forester. Its dexterity in opening nuts and the stones of fruit is curious. It fixes the nut in a crack, on the top of a post, or in the bark of a tree, and, placing itself above it, head downwards, striking with great force and rapidity, with its strong, wedge-shaped bill on the edge of the shell, splits it open. When their food is plentiful, they have a favourite crack for unshelling the kernels, as sometimes a peck of broken shells may be seen under this crack."
The Rev. W. T. Bree tells us that " the tapping of the bird on the hard shell may be heard at a considerable distance, and that during the operation it sometimes happens that the nut swerves from its fixture and falls towards the ground. It has not descended, however, for the space of more than a few yards, when the nuthatch, with admirable adroitness, recovers it in the fall, and, replacing it in its former position, commences the attack afresh. The fall of the nut in the air, and the recovery by the bird on the wing, 1 have seen repeated several times in the space of a few minutes." '
This is a little act of skill in the bird which it would be charming to observe; and here again I would remark, as I have so often done before, that this is but a single instance of what many of us, living in the country, might witness in some woodland nook near at hand, if we would only be lovingly still and patient, and interest ourselves in the ways and means of the innocent animal-life around us.
The nest of the bird also deserves our notice; and let me here call your attention to the beautiful and living little portrait of the bird at home, given us by Mr. Harrison Weir, than which we have nothing more truthful from his pencil. The home of the nuthatch is nothing more, to begin with, than the hole in an old tree, which, probably, has been deserted by the woodpecker. As, however, the woodpecker either requires a more enlarged entrance to her nursery, or considers it more seemly, the nuthatch, who merely likes a snug little hole to creep in at, and nothing more, walls up the opening with a plastering of clay or mud, leaving only just room enough for herself to enter. Perhaps she may be afraid of the old tenants returning and again taking possession, so builds up a little defence in front; but of that I cannot say; certain it is she makes herself comfortably at home in rather an untidy nest, composed mostly of dead oak-leaves, and here she lays six or seven white eggs, with ruddy spots on them.
If the plaster wall be by any chance removed, the poor bird loses not a moment in replacing it; and though she has apparently great dread of any enemy -- the woodpecker, snake, man, or whatever else he may be, disturbing her- yet so faithfully devoted is she to her duties, that scarcely anything will induce her to leave the eggs or young. She fights vigorously in defence of her home and its treasures, striking out with her bill and wings, and making a hissing, angry noise. Nay, timid and shy as she naturally is, she will suffer herself to be carried off captive rather than desert her charge.
Let me conclude with one of Bechstein's anecdotes of the nuthatch: --
"A lady amused herself in the winter by throwing seeds on the terrace, below the window, to feed the birds in the neighbourhood. She put some hemp-seed and cracked nuts even on the window-sill, and on a board, for her particular favourites, the blue-tits. Two nuthatches came one day to have their share of this repast, and were so well pleased that they became quite familiar, and did not even go away in the following spring to get their natural food and to build their nest in the wood. They settled themselves in the hollow of an old tree near the house. "
As soon as the two young ones which were reared here were ready to fly, they brought them to the hospitable window, where they were to be nourished, and soon after disappeared entirely. It was amusing to see these two new visitors hang or climb on the walls or blinds, whilst their benefactress put their food on the board. These pretty creatures as well as the tits, knew her so well, that when she drove away the sparrows, which came to steal what was not intended for them, they did not fly away also, but seemed to know what was done was only to protect and defend them. They remained near the house for the whole summer, rarely wandering, till one fatal day, at the beginning of the sporting season, in autumn, on hearing the report of a gun, they disappeared and were never seen again."