Nutty about this little bird

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Nuthatches have the unique ability to walk down as well as up tree trunks (photo by Birdspot.co.uk)

One of the benefits of using my Dad’s archive to research my columns is the incredible way in which it is expanding my rural knowledge. In particular, I am discovering more about our native bird life. Both my parents were, and my mum still is, keen bird watchers, and several feeders and nesting boxes are dotted about Mum’s garden, while binoculars are left by the window to observe the fascinating activities of these feathered friends.

By 1978, when Dad was 42, he was already well known as a rural expert and his Countryman’s Diary had been running for two years in the Darlington and Stockton Times. He was still a policeman, though, by then Press Officer for the North Riding Constabulary with the rank of inspector. He was often consulted by his colleagues at the Newby Wiske headquarters on country matters, and one day someone asked him to help identify a bird that had been spotted in the grounds.

The colourful little creature resembled a mini woodpecker and had been seen making its way down a tree trunk. It was about the size of a finch, with a long black beak, slate-grey feathers, peach-tinged breast, and it appeared to be wearing what looked like the mask of Zorro – a black stripe running from its beak, past its eyes to the back of its head.

Dad immediately identified one of his favourite species, the nuthatch, and went on to recount why he was so fond of that particular bird.

He had grown up in the village of Glaisdale on the North York Moors and spent much of his youth exploring nearby Arncliffe Wood. One day he found a nest in a hole ten feet up a beech tree, and was intrigued by the fact that the entrance had been reduced in size by layers of mud applied around the edges.

In fact this is the nuthatch’s ingenious security measure, designed to prevent larger interlopers from gatecrashing its home. The nest inside is lined with wafer-thin pieces of bark stripped from trees like the pine, sometimes supplemented with dry leaves.

Dad was thrilled with his find, as in his youth nuthatches were not common in the north of England. But by the 1970s they had started to become more populous in Yorkshire and today are seen as far north as Scotland, with numbers in our region healthily robust.

They are the only native bird that is known to walk both up and down tree trunks, which enables them to pick up insects when they are travelling back down the tree that they may have missed on the way up. They also have the ability to hang upside down from branches. Nuthatches are highly intelligent, and in the warmer months when food is plentiful, they store nuts and seeds within the nooks and crevices of the bark of their home tree trunk, a habit known as ‘seed caching’. They then cover these stashes of food with bark or lichen so that they won’t be stolen by competitors. When the colder weather sets in, they can then retrieve their supplies to ensure they survive the winter.

These fascinating little birds can be found in mature woods and parkland, but they avoid trees that are exposed to industrial pollution. As well as insects, it feeds on hazelnuts, beech mast and acorns, as its name suggests, using its powerful beak to peck at the outer shells until these tough delicacies break open. Their strong beaks also serve another purpose, in that they use them to create their nesting site. If they fail to find a suitable hole, such as an abandoned woodpecker nest, they create their own from scratch, choosing a spot high up in a trunk, and using their beaks to dig out the bark until the cavity is big enough to house a growing family. They are monogamous, and stay with their mate over several breeding seasons. Although the typical lifespan of a nuthatch is not much more than two years, one has been recorded in the UK to have reached almost 13 years of age.

They don’t wander far from the woods where they were born and, as they are native to this country, they can be seen all year round. So next time you’re having a woodland wander, keep looking up to see if you can spot a nuthatch nest.

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 18th and the Gazette & Herald on 16th June 2021