In the ‘Mad Days of March’ before nesting began, the feeders on the terrace were enclosed in feathery, frantic sleeves knitted together from quivering masses of chickadees. They are mostly blue tits and great tits, gorging on seeds, munching on balls of fat, replacing body mass after the harsh winter weather and preparing for the demands of the breeding season.
Suddenly they will take flight, humming en masse to the nearby bushes where they will wait and watch. What happened? Two elegant and pirate presences have crept in. I had been alerted to this over the past fortnight by faint repetitive drumming against the hollow branch of an oak tree. “Too soft for spikes,” I thought, concentrating the spyglass.
Sure enough, what appeared, flattened against the rough bark, searching for insects with a dagger-like beak on which a strong black eye stripe draws attention, was a nuthatch – a glorious sight, slate gray above, pastel red below, belly-buff, creamy-throat. Without a collar and powerful for all that, it is only the size of a bunting. All the other birds in the edge thicket seem very wary around him. Is her mere presence and appearance enough of a threat to put them on notice? Perhaps they attack other birds, although I have not witnessed such incidents.
The equipment a nuthatch carries is obviously deadly. But the way this wild bill is used rebounds to the benefit of onlookers. Nuthatches are messy eaters. They quickly demolish balls of fat, leaving the ground below littered with fragments that blackbirds and robins consume unhindered.
They sing too. Not inventively and melodically like blackbirds – I can’t imagine teaching nuthatches to whistle La Marseillaise, as I did with the blackbird that perches on the roof of the shed – but the two modes of their song are both attractive. There is a penetrating and clear note, repeated for long periods, which you can hear over considerable distances; and a more liquid and complex sequence of two-note repeats, evoking pulsating flows.
Nuthatches are, in an understated and subtle way, remarkably beautiful birds – not in vivid coloration but in attractive delicacy of hue and design. WH Hudson wrote of them that they looked “less like a living bird than a carved bird”. So they do, and beautifully so.