Some birds like you to know they’re there. Take the European robin. It sings, sweetly enough, throughout the year as well as through the night on occasion. It visits feeders, and doesn’t hesitate to chase other birds off them, the result of a highly developed territorial sense. And, if you’re outside digging the garden at just about this time of year (well, any time of year, to be honest), it will happily come and hop around your feet, snaffling any worms that you unearth. It will even ask to be hand-fed with mealworms. Photos of robins sitting on gardeners’ spades and forks have been a staple of wildlife calendars for as long as I can remember, and of course it has also cornered the market in modelling for Christmas cards.
Some birds, on the other hand, will do anything to prevent you from detecting their presence. The grasshopper warbler, say, a species that summers in the United Kingdom and is—just as I type—readying itself to head to Africa for the winter. Even at sites where you know to expect it—my local reserve, for example, has three or four breeding pairs—it’s very seldom seen, skulking away in low scrub, bushes, and undergrowth. The clue to its presence is a song not unlike the chirping of a grasshopper, although many field guides also compare it to a bicycle freewheeling, or a fishing reel being let out (its vocalization is even known as “reeling”).
Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about a third category: birds that seem utterly oblivious to humans. I do a monthly bird survey in a woodland about a mile from home. It’s mainly made up of ancient, deciduous trees, especially oaks, with a certain amount of other species and a couple of patches of recently planted conifers, and it gets a reasonably wide range of species. In spring and early summer, there were high numbers of singing warblers, blackbirds, song thrushes and robins (of course), as well as the regular woodpigeons and carrion crows, but in these past few weeks there’s been the annual August lull. Birds are moulting, recently-fledged juveniles are vulnerable, so everything tries to keep a low profile.
Except the nuthatches, that is. Every month I’ve seen one on each of two particular trees within the wood. Superficially woodpecker-like, Eurasian nuthatches are small, plump birds with a blue back, a black, bandit eye stripe, and lovely, chestnut flanks. In the spring, they occasionally signal their presence with their loud, whistling song, or insistent tuit, tuit, tuit-tuit call. In winter, on the other hand, they sometimes give themselves away by the behaviour that originally gave them their name. After wedging a nut into a crevice in a tree, they hack away at it. Somewhere in the past 1,000 years or so, “nut-hack” became “nuthatch.” Blame the Anglo-Saxons.
Most of the time, you’ll find them because you’ve noticed exactly the trees they like, and because they’re the only British bird species capable of descending a tree trunk headfirst. From the corner of your eye, you’ll see something moving slowly groundwards, and you know there’s only one thing it could be.
In recent years, they’ve expanded their range in the UK, and started coming to garden feeders and parks in search of food. At all times, though, they retain that air of being not so much actually shy as indifferent to your presence. Except when they flit from one tree to another, or during the breeding season, their own world seems to shrink right down to the bark ridges and valleys of the trunk before them.
Take the one in the photo. I was in a park in Birmingham last spring, and as I sat reading on a bench, birds were all around me. Pigeons, carrion crows and jackdaws confidently picked at crumbs around my feet, while at the other extreme a blackcap could only be persuaded to emerge from a hawthorn bush after minutes of pishing and patient observation. But the nuthatch, when it appeared, trod that middle path again. It was never going to come close enough that I could have thrown my hat over it, like the aforementioned species, but it needed little persuading to emerge from cover. Only the act of pointing a camera at it, or lifting my binoculars, seemed to kindle a diffidence that eventually resulted in its retreat. It was, despite the fact that I was sat in the middle of England’s second city, utterly unconcerned by my presence.
Now I know what you’re thinking: Where does poetry come into this? Well, this exquisite little piece, The Nuthatch, by Bernard O’Donoghue, is one of my very favourite bird poems. O’Donoghue, who was born in Ireland but grew up in Manchester and became a professor at Oxford, perfectly evokes the bird itself, but also manages to encapsulate what I feel every time I see one—that I’m somehow intruding upon a very private world. If I’m lucky, that eventually softens into a feeling of how privileged I am to be seeing this creature going about its daily business, but it’s a very fine line.
And of course, the nuthatch in the poem, indulging in its close-up “rind-research,” is also the poet, and also, it strikes me, the birdwatcher. We all, as we peer down the tunnels of our scopes or chew the ends of our pencils, have that need to create a little bubble around us, from time to time, a need to preserve a little part of the world for ourselves. So perhaps that’s why the sight of the distinctive shape of the nuthatch always feels so memorable: They’re both utterly unlike us, and at the same time they are us.
About the Author
Matt is the editor of Bird Watching Magazine (UK), and the writer of three collections of poetry - Troy Town (Arrowhead Press, 2008), hydrodaktulopsychicharmonica (Nine Arches Press, 2010) and The Elephant Tests (Nine Arches, 2013). He lives near Leicester, England, and blogs at http://polyolbion.blogspot.co.uk