Possumhaw: The little bird book



Shannon Bardwell



"I heard a bird sing in the dark of December. A magical thing and sweet to remember." 


Oliver Herford, 1863-1935 




The deciduous trees let go their leaves, the foliage folded into nothingness and the cold descended like the night sky. Simultaneously, flocks of birds swarmed the birdfeeders hanging empty. The feeders stayed empty for most the summer, as Wilhelmina and Harry discovered by hiding in flower beds, creeping ivy and neighboring bushes they could snatch a bird, a most colorful bird, in the blink of an eye. Therefore, I let the birds fend for themselves while nature provided bountifully. And now that the cats are more visible and less threatening and food sources are scarce, I'm again filling the feeders.  


A small bird in notable numbers arrived last week. They are quick and chatty and flit from feeder to cedar trees and back again. I'm not good at bird identification, so don't hold me to it, but from my little bird book's description, I'm convinced the birds are red-breasted nuthatches -- a cousin of the white-breasted nuthatch. Our nuthatch has a black stripe across the face and eye and a rusty-colored breast. They favor birdfeeders with seed and insects from the bark of conifer trees. From the upstairs window I've seen many a nuthatch scouring the cedar trees.  


The little bird book says the name nuthatch comes from "nut hack" -- the birds' habit of sticking seed in the bark of a tree and then "hacking" it with its bill. The book also describes the call of the red-breasted nuthatch as a "quieter high-pitched 'ank.'" I'm not sure I can confirm the sound, as I can never pronounce some bird book descriptions like the big bird book's white-eyed vireo's "chik-errrr-topikerreerr-chik."  


I do know every morning as I'm waking, I hear the chatter of the busy little birds outside my window and quite possibly it is a quiet "ank." In any case, it's an altogether pleasant sound to greet the day.  


More tips from the little bird book: Don't worry about feeding all year long (unless you have cats); if the bird needs to migrate it will. If you chose to discontinue feeding, the birds will survive. Metal feeders are OK. Birds' feet won't freeze to the metal. It's OK to feed peanut butter. Their bills won't stick together. (Peanut butter in hanging pinecones is a natural idea.) Using white sugar in hummingbird feeders is OK, but not honey. You can leave your hummingbird feeder up until the last bird is gone. (I still have my hummingbird feeder up but will take it down when the Christmas tree goes up.)  


I should mention this favorite little pocket bird book of mine is "Early Bird: Eastern Backyard Birds," by Millie Miller and Cyndi Nelson. The "Early Bird" book was published in 1990, probably when I bought it. To my surprise, it is still available. On the internet I found some copies for $2.98. Miller and Nelson have also published other practical pocket books on nature things.  


Millie Miller dedicated "Early Birds" to her mother "who was a bluebird herself in her day." I love it. 



Shannon Rule Bardwell is a Southern writer living quietly in the Prairie.


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