Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Year of the Nuthatch

Red-breasted nuthatch © SB
St. Peter's Abbey, Muenster, Saskatchewan: Chickadees and nuthatches fly at me as soon as I put down my snowshoe poles. Their wings brush my arms and the hood of my parka as they zip and spin from snow-covered firs to the ground. They’re tame. They know when people stop walking, treats begin.

At first, the black-capped chickadees are the boldest. But once my hand is out of my pocket and the peanuts shelled, the roles reverse. The red-breasted nuthatches, with their metallic scolding calls, evict chickadees from my fingers.

“It’s the Year of the Nuthatch – they’ve finally had enough and they’re fighting back,” the Abbey guest master says. And he should know; he’s fed them all year -- for many years.

I am spending the week at a writing retreat at the St. Peter's Abbey, the only place I've ever felt more than one pair of rough chickadee claws tickle my fingers at a time; the only place I've ever met nuthatches tame enough to feed – much less battle their way to the peanuts.

Two birds in hand. © SB
These chickadees and nuthatches are so tame I don’t even have to stand still with unmoving arms outstretched. If I bat them away while I focus my small camera, they fly right back for the nuts. If I close my fingers, they nudge their heads in.

They come so fast and so frequently, I know they can’t be eating the nuts. They must be hoarding them somewhere in the trees.

The routine works like this:
  1. Take off gloves. 
  2. Shell peanuts in left pocket.
  3. Pull  camera from right and sling strap over wrist.
  4. Switch hands (wasted effort: the curse of being illogical and left-handed).
  5. Focus camera on nuts.
  6. Wait for great shot.
  7. Shoot.
Except that it usually doesn’t.

Instead, the birds hover beside me by Step 2. By Step 5, they’re back zipping and spinning from the trees to the ground to invisible perches midair. And most of my pictures show translucent angel wings or icy, empty, red hands.

Bird Gallery: 
All photos: © Shelley Banks



  1. Thanks so much, Tracy! This is a great place, and it's fun to see that they've tamed the nuthatches, as well as the chickadees.


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