For the Birds Radio Program: Chopping Down Trees

Original Air Date: July 26, 1996

A pair of baby nuthatches reminds Laura Erickson of how important it is to leave nest trees alone in summer. 3:52

Audio missing


Last week one of my neighbor’s brought me two tiny baby birds, sprouting pinfeathers but not much else yet. He had chopped down a birch tree and then discovered them in a small cavity. One baby died in the crash, and there was an unhatched egg still in the hole, but these two were still alive. I assumed they were chickadees, but as their feathers grew in the next few days, I realized they were Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Birds that nest in cavities spend their early days in darkness, and these little guys were scared out of their gourds at the big, bright world and especially us–enormous strangers peering down on them. I’m sure our forward-facing eyes conjured up fearful instincts of those most dreaded of predators, owls and cats. They crouched low and motionless and kept their eyes closed, looking just about dead.

They were still very young, but knew darned well that I wasn’t their mother. It took almost an hour of my making high-pitched squeaks to finally get them to open their mouths for me to feed them. But for being so tiny–they both fit together in my palm with plenty of room to spare–they sure ate a lot. I went through about fifty mealworms the first afternoon, and the second and third days they ate about a hundred mealworms apiece. This represented hundreds of feedings–they could only manage half a mealworm in a mouthful. I had to use a forceps to get the morsels in their tiny mouths.

Their feathers grew almost visibly–within two days they were fluttering their wings and stretching their legs and looking utterly adorable. Like all baby songbirds, they fluttered their wings and opened their brightly colored mouths wide when begging, making high-pitched calls. But as they started looking more like nuthatches, they also started sounding more like them, making little nasal beeps. They started climbing up in the container, and then looking all about, utterly absorbed in studying their surroundings. This is probably a critical stage for young birds to imprint on the sights and sounds of a proper nest tree. They should have been outside, learning about birches, instead of on my desk, learning about bird books and coffee mugs. These guys are doing fine, and rm sure they’ll be successfully released, but they may not be as adept as other nuthatches at building a shelter for the winter and a nest cavity for raising their own babies.

I also felt sorry for their parents, who must still be grieving the loss of their tree and their babies. Nuthatches and chickadees excavate their own holes, and up here they usually choose birches, short-lived trees that get rotten spots easy for tiny beaks to chip. Unfortunately, humans don’t like rotten birches in their backyards, so we chop them down. Little birds, trying desperately hard to be inconspicuous so crows and jays won’t notice them, are great at avoiding our detection, too, until it’s too late. But when we search hard in late spring and early summer, it’s hard to find any big tree that doesn’t harbor some kind of nest. Little songbirds have enough problems nowadays–let’s give them a break during their brief nesting season. There are more than nine months of the year when we can safely chop down trees. But from mid-May through the end of July, put those axes down and enjoy the more quiet sounds of a summer filled with birds.