For the Birds Radio Program: John Kieran's Nuthatches

Original Air Date: Jan. 27, 1989 (estimated date)

Re-produced from 1986-12-08

Audio missing


(Recording of a White-breasted Nuthatch)

When I started birding fourteen years ago, I didn’t know a hawk from a handsaw. Since then, I’ve seen thousands of nuthatches. But before I actually started looking for them, I never in my life would have guessed that they even existed. The late John Kieran, the New York writer who was the star of radio’s “Information Please” in the 1940’s, didn’t discover nuthatches until he was an adult, either–at the time, he was teaching in a rural one-room school, and was required to give a Nature Study Course. He wrote:

When it came time to teach this subject, I picked up the first leaflet and saw on it a picture of an odd-looking bird in what seemed to me to be an utterly impossible position. It was a stumpy-tailed bird about six-inches long, white underneath, gray and black on top, and it was pictured apparently going down an old fence post headfirst. I never had seen any bird proceed in that topsy-turvy fashion and, furthermore, the bird of the picture was a total stranger to me. I glanced at the reading matter under the picture and it read something like this:

“The White-breasted Nuthatch. This common bird is known to every farm boy and girl…”!

I looked at the picture again in astonishment. No, sir; never before in my life had I seen anything that looked like that bird, and I had been outdoors in that area for a dozen summers and many weeks at other seasons of the year. Not only that, but the confounded bird was shown walking down a fence post, a most irregular procedure in my view. There was no lesson in Nature Study that day. The bird leaflet went quietly back into the drawer of teacher’s desk and I took up some subject I could handle with greater confidence: spelling. I would sleep on the mystery.

As usual, I slept outdoors. The next morning when I awakened I lingered under the blankets a few minutes before getting up. As I lay there I noticed something moving on the trunk of a tree. The moving object was, to my utter amazement, the mysterious bird “known to every farm boy and girl,” the aforesaid White-breasted Nuthatch of the Nature Study leaflet–and it was moving down the tree headfirst! I reared up on my cot to have a better look at this phenomenon and my sudden movement caught the bird’s attention so that it paused in its downward journey to twist its head to stare at me, which put it momentarily in the exact pose of the bird in the picture that the Department of Education had forced upon me.

This experience was a stunner and gave me furiously to think. I never had suspected the existence of any such bird until I had seen its picture and a few printed words about it the previous day. But the first thing that met my eyes the next morning was a live specimen of this type not ten feet from the end of my nose! It was nearly a mile from our farmhouse to the school and, on the way that morning, I kept my eyes open with astonishing results. I saw four more of these birds going up or down the trunks of trees! By the time I reached the school I realized that I had been practically blind for twenty years. I saw other birds I never had noticed before, but what they were I couldn’t guess. I determined to keep my eyes open and investigate further.

Like John Kieran, many birdwatchers were first inspired to learn more about birds after a memorable encounter with a single bird. If you’ve ever had a close encounter of the bird kind, write and tell us about it. We’ll share some of these with our listeners.