The bird who can hang upside down

THIS bird is an acrobat. I watch him every day out of my kitchen window up to all sorts of tricks. It is almost as if he is showing off. ‘Look what I can do’ he and his mate seems to say.

This photograph, above, by Cicestrian Brian Henham shows how the nuthatch can hold itself in a dramatic pose upside down.

You can see the long claws digging into the birch bark. Several times a day my nuthatches will run down the trunk of their own tree where they nest as quick as if falling.

Yesterday I watched a grey squirrel trying the same trick but it lost grip on the ash bark and fell twenty feet. I’ll deal with him later.

Meanwhile the squirrel had poked his nose into the nest hole of the nuthatch. This was first made forty years ago by a green woodpecker. Sometimes in cold weather another green woodpecker used to roost in this hole but he has gone as well.

Now the nuthatches have nested there for thirty years. Not the same ones, as they probably don’t live much more than six years. A ten-year-old bird has been known but most can expect three years.

Nuthatches can inadvertently attract squirrels by storing food in the cracks of bark.

I have watched squirrels here finding grains of wheat or bread, sunflower seeds and even a piece of cheese rind I threw out for the birds.

Nuthatches dominate the bird table and, quick as they can, store as much as they can in the same half dozen hiding places week in, week out.

The squirrels soon learn where these hidey holes are. Marsh tits do the same, storing wheat seeds in other trees fifty yards in the opposite direction.

Already the female nuthatch has started mixing mud pies to make cement for her nest. I must remember to keep her little patch of ground nice and wet, just as many farmers keep a mud pie wet for house-martins and swallows in their charge around the farms.

The female nuthatch (blueleg; nutcracker; nutjobber in old Sussex parlance) will enlarge a nest hole in a tree and then reduce it in size again with dry mud before she is satisfied with her front door.

It seems silly to us but that’s how she’s wired up and she can’t help herself.

The African hornbill actually insists on being bricked into their hold in the tree by her mate, who leaves a slit just big enough for her beak to poke through to receive food, while she incubates.

If you watch a nuthatch gathering a pellet of mud into her beak – these often as big as a cob nut – and you are too close for comfort she will become uneasy and take her mud pie somewhere else and smear it about all over the bark of a foreign tree.

Only when you have become tired of watching this false trail will she return and with you safely on the horizon return to her work as jobbing builder.

But “my” nuthatches have become bored with me watching them and ignore me completely.

Richard Williamson