In the “mad March days” prior to the onset of nesting, the feeders on the terrace have been encased in feathery, frantic sleeves knitted together from twitching masses of titmice. They’re blue tits and great tits for the most part, gorging themselves on seeds, chipping away at fat balls, replacing body mass after the rigors of winter and in preparation for demands of the breeding season.
Suddenly they’ll take flight, whirr away en masse to nearby bushes where they wait and watch. What happened? Two elegant, piratical presences have streaked in. I’d been alerted to them over the last fortnight by repetitive faint drummings against the hollow branch of an oak. “Too soft for woodpeckers”, I’d thought, focusing the spyglass.
Sure enough, what came into view, flattened against the rough bark, probing for insects with dagger bill to which a strong black eyestripe draws attention, was a nuthatch – a glorious vision, slate gray above, pastel red below, buff of belly, creamy -throated. Neckless and powerful for all that it’s only dunnock-sized. All the other birds of the woodland-edge thicket seem very wary around it. Is its mere presence and appearance sufficient threat to warn them away? Perhaps they do attack other birds, though I’ve not witnessed such incidents.
The equipment a nuthatch carries is obviously lethal. But the way that savage bill is used rebounds to the onlookers’ advantage. Nuthatches are messy eaters. They quickly demolish fat balls, leaving the ground beneath littered with fragments that blackbirds and robins consume unmolested.
They also sing. Not inventively and melodically like blackbirds – I can’t imagine teaching nuthatches to whistle La Marseillaise, as I’ve done with the cock blackbird that perches on the shed roof – but the two modes of their song are both attractive. There’s a penetrative, clear note, repeated for long periods, that you can hear over considerable distances; and a more liquid and complex sequence of two-note repetitions, redolent of pulsing streams.
Nuthatches are, in an understated, subtle way, remarkably beautiful birds—not through bright coloring but by an appealing delicacy of tint and design. WH Hudson wrote of them that they look “less like a living than a sculpted bird”. So they do, and beautifully thus.