Call it a hacker if you must

Birds of a feather and all that. … Some, it appears, are a little bit more talented when it comes to grooming.

I remember well the year a blue jay haunted the feeders, this one remarkably different in appearance. I always thought he’d just pulled his head in the nick of time out of a cat’s mouth for his head was a ruffled melange of feathers with a pretty bald neck.

I tend to presume that birds with a mussed demeanor are straight out of the nest and haven’t yet been properly combed by ma or pa. More likely it’s a slight genetic mix-up. These anomalies either shape up or lack the needed survival skills for, after a few weeks, I do not notice them any more.

[Just in the nick of time Cornell sends an article on molting. Like snakes losing their skin, birds replace all their feathers in mid-summer. So just perhaps . . .]

This year it’s a nuthatch that calls attention to its ruffled demeanor. Its head is well, if you put a bird under a hairdryer (WHICH I DEFINITELY DO NOT SUGGEST), this is probably how the survivor would appear.

Nuthatches are high on the list of my personal favorites. I like their more stream-lined appearance and enjoy seeing them scoot up and down the larch’s trunk. The only other birds as adept at climbing are the brown creeper and the red-breasted nuthatch. (Mine is officially known as the white-breasted.)

The creeper is a well-camouflaged brown and turns its long beak up at the feeder goodies. I see it only when I happen to be looking at the nearest cherry and notice movement on the side of the tree. Meanwhile, the red-breasted nuthatch is smaller, sports a tan (sorry) chest and has a huge white stripe above its eye. No chance of goofing on this identification!

Here’s one but not the scraggler posing as I write: up the tree, now down and then out of sight as it circles around it. They’re searching for insects in the bark but just as happy to take what they can at the feeder.

One of my books says the white-breast may also be mistaken for a chickadee. They do tend to flock together with titmice too but really are pretty easy to distinguish. Check out the long curved beak of the nuthatch (how it gets the bugs in the bark!) and lumberjack behavior.

Year-round visitors, they’ll stick it out through our highest highs and lowest lows, burrowing into a ready-made hole in an existing cavity of a tree. Having re-established (the book says) their relationship in January or February, the two will stay together through the summer.

Their nest is found in the rotted knothole of a tree. Mom will brood for the first few days and the young must leave the nest shortly after though both parents will continue to feed them for approximately two more weeks. They may stick together as a family well into the autumn months.

I have grown aware of the importance of trees to these stunning birds. That’s where they nest plus, according to the Stokes, the adults have their own separate roost holes for sleeping. (I know more than a few adults who prefer the same arrangement.) If the female is so inclined, they add, she may move into his hole in the spring (“sorry, dad, you’re out”) and keep it for her nesting hole. On occasion they may also have to battle other birds (titmice, starlings, sparrows) to maintain possession.

I am told the birds’ name comes from NUTHACK which I guess makes as much sense as anything. This, it goes on, is because of their frequent habit of wedging a nut or seed into a crack in a tree and then hacking it open. (There are actually better words for that than hack.)

The nuthatch doesn’t seem to be a picky eater and will enjoy nuts, fruits, insects, and suet. Going to all that bother for a nut has to be either terribly rewarding or just a fun challenge.

Mine seem very happy with the feed at the feeder.

Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com