For the Birds Radio Program: Jelly Belly

Original Air Date: May 24, 2004 (estimated date)

Laura had a scary encounter with a Red-breasted Nuthatch.

Audio missing


Jelly Belly

2004 seems to the spring of the oriole in my backyard. I’ve had as many as seven Baltimore Orioles at one time, so I’ve set out several bowls of grape jelly and lots of orange halves so they can all eat at the same time. They go through a lot of jelly, so I started putting bigger and bigger plops in the bowl in my window feeder, but that turned out to be a near-fatal mistake, not for the orioles or Cape May Warblers that feed on it, but for one of my little Red-breasted Nuthatches.

I was gone for the morning on Friday, and when I came home and looked at my feeder, my male nuthatch was hopelessly mired in the jelly—he’d sunk in so the only parts of him sticking out were his beak and his eyes. I cranked open the window and scooped him out, and he was so weak from struggling that he couldn’t even move. Fortunately, this was one of the nuthatches that I feed by hand, so he seemed pretty trusting, though at this point he really was too weak to have made any resistance. I gave him a warm bath in the bathroom sink, getting at least 90% of the jelly off, and then held him, perched on my finger, as he preened and gobbled down mealworms. After an hour, as he started to dry off, I could see that there were still some little gobs of jelly, so I gave him another bath. He didn’t like the bathing process and looked a little forlorn, but I was gentle and he was resigned—the experience was a lot like giving a bath to my little dog Photon, only on a much tinier scale.

I’d expected that as he got stronger again, and as the weight of the jelly and the bathwater disappeared, he’d be too feisty for me to hold and I’d have to put him in a box. But he seemed perfectly content to perch on my finger as he preened and shook off the water. Once he flew up to a bookcase, but when I put my finger out, he climbed right back on. Of course I had work to do, but somehow holding the little mite seemed just as worthwhile an experience. It took three baths, almost three hours, and about 20 mealworms before his plumage seemed in good enough order to put him out in the 40-degree chill. I was scared, though—it had been cold and drizzly for days, which is hard enough for spring birds, needing vast quantities of insects—if his plumage was at all compromised, he could well succumb to hypothermia. But I didn’t want to risk him bonking into one of my windows from the inside, so I took him to the feeder window, cranked it open, and held him for a minute or so while he looked around. Then he flew off.

For the rest of the day, I kept watching for him, but didn’t see him at all. Were his wings strong enough to elude predators? Had the insulating value of his feathers been compromised? Had he met with another bizarre accident? I was afraid I’d never know. And he never did appear all day, though his mate came many times, and carried off as many mealworms as she ate at the feeder.

But the next day, there he was again, good as new, with just enough purplish wash on some of his tummy feathers to prove his identity. The only difference was that now when my hand appeared, he made a soft, rapid little call I’d never heard before, and was hesitant about jumping on my hand for mealworms. So I put them in the dish and closed the window. But within an hour he was back at my hand, and all was apparently forgiven. Now I’m being very careful to set out the jelly in much tinier plops so such an accident can never happen again.

But now that I recognize this nuthatch as an individual, it seems like he needs a name. It’s terribly rude, but I keep thinking of him as my own little jelly belly. Fortunately, he can’t speak English, so he’ll never know.