For the Birds Radio Program: Nuthatch, Part I
I spent a week in August in the company of a White-breasted Nuthatch. He was a handsome adult male who had crashed into a window of a house outside Duluth and was partially paralyzed on his right side. The man who found him called the Minnesota DNR, and whoever he talked to sent him to me. When the bird arrived, he wasn’t able to stand upright, one eye was not open fully, and he couldn’t fluff up the feathers on the right side of his head and body. When he tried to move at all, he fell over, onto his side or his back, and he couldn’t right himself.
We have an excellent wildlife rehabilitator in Duluth named Emily Buchanan, but she happened to be overfilled with other responsibilities right then. And really, the problems with this little nuthatch weren’t the kind anyone can fix easily even with professional medical care. It had a concussion, some other form of brain damage, or spinal damage, and surgery on such a tiny mite would have been impossible even at the finest professional facilities. Transporting him to the Twin Cities would have been potentially very dangerous and definitely bewildering and stressful for the bird, and since all anyone could do for him were provide a quiet, safe environment and the kind of simple nursing skills I have in abundance, I figured he might as well stay with me for the short time he had left.
I picked him up and was surprised at how light he was. I could feel the keel of his sternum, and he had very little muscle mass—he was nothing more than feathers and spirit. Sometimes when birds are seriously injured, they don’t seem to have much spirit or what they do have is all fear and desperation, but this little guy’s eyes met mine in a pretty calm manner. Nuthatches, like chickadees, warblers, and some other small birds that associate in mixed-species flocks, seem more accepting of or at least less desperate to fight or escape from humans than most birds, maybe because they so readily accept into their midst birds of entirely different species.
His extremely low weight indicated that he was both on the edge of starvation and badly dehydrated. Cradling him in my left hand, I dipped my right index finger in a cup of water and held the drop at my fingertip at the tip near his beak. He thrust his beak into the drip and took a nice tiny drink. I repeated this several times until he lost interest. Then I propped him up with wads of tissue in a small box and charged over to Wild Birds Unlimited to buy 500 mealworms. When I returned, he was upside down again, just lying there, and my heart fell, but when I picked him up, his eyes were bright and again he met my eyes. I cradled him again and offered as much water as he wanted, and then held a mealworm where he could see it and grab it if he wanted.
Mealworms are close to the same color as my fingers, but he readily distinguished the edible morsel from me and within seconds reached his head out and plucked it out of my grasp. He shook it a few times and then opened his beak and swallowed the whole thing straight down. I offered another one, and again he grabbed and ate it, and quickly downed another three. He didn’t take a sixth one, and seemed comfortable and satisfied, so I returned him to the small box, propped with toilet paper wads again.
I was working on a couple of projects at my computer, so I set the box right next to me, where I could watch and protect him from falling over. Through the rest of the day, he ate several dozen more mealworms and drank lots of water. I was concerned about spinal damage because he didn’t go to the bathroom all afternoon or evening. He was still unable to keep his balance and one eye was still squinting, and at bedtime I was scared that I’d be waking up to a dead little nuthatch, but something in his spirit seemed to reassure me. He was curious about everything going on around him, and drinking and eating a lot. I kept delaying leaving him alone, so I was more afraid that I was seeing him alive for the last time than I wanted to admit. But finally I left him and set my clock for 5 am. Time would tell.