For the Birds Radio Program: Nuthatch, Part II

Original Air Date: Sept. 5, 2007 Rerun Dates: Sept. 1, 2016; Sept. 18, 2008

Laura’s nuthatch made it through the night and showed steady improvement for seven days.

Duration: 5′11″


A lot of people taking care of baby or injured adult birds think they need to feed birds in the middle of the night, as they would baby mammals. But songbirds don’t nurse their babies—they feed them insects or other food items which they must find first, and their eyes only work in daylight, so baby birds sleep the night through without expecting, or needing, feedings. And this nuthatch was an adult. I did peek in on him twice overnight. The second time I checked he had toppled over again, so I set him upright. He felt a bit cool to the touch, and I went to bed pretty sure that was going to be the end.

But he was upright, eyes already open when I came in at five in the morning. The right eye was still squinting, but he ate a good breakfast and then started backing off my hand, shaking his tail, which had been listing to his left, good side. I gently protected him from falling off my hand, and voila—he pooped. The dropping was large but normal colored—plenty of white urates and plenty of dark fecal material, so I knew he was digesting his food and that there was no serious internal bleeding in his digestive system.

He continued to have problems balancing all day. I kept him at my side all day, feeding him often and helping him back up without toppling when he had to go to the bathroom. That night when I turned the light off, I was pretty sure he’d make it through another night.

The next day I had a date to go to Tettagouche State Park with a couple of birding buddies. The nuthatch was still too immobile to eat mealworms by himself, and was still occasionally toppling over, so I decided to bring him along. I put his shoebox in a big totebag. While we were hiking, he was securely on my arm and I could feed him as much as he wanted throughout the day. It was a quiet day in the woods, but we heard a few chickadee and warbler flocks—the kind of birds nuthatches normally associate with. He looked up with interest, but didn’t try to escape.

I was starting to notice a few definite improvements. Now the feathers on his right side were starting to fluff up a bit, and he was starting to preen his left side. His eye was open all the way part of the time now, but still squinty some of the time. He still couldn’t fly or hop, but now he was able to stay upright with only a little propping.

Over the next five days he continued to improve. By the fifth day his head feathers were symmetric again. His right leg was still weak, making perching difficult, but by the sixth day he was able to cling on branches. Now he was also starting to fly again. I was surprised at how well he could fly before his right leg was allowing secure landings. But by the seventh morning, he was even landing well. Unfortunately, on one of his flights, he bonked into my office window. Fortunately, it was a side glance without much impact—it would have been ironic indeed had he killed himself on the inside of a window.

But now I was faced with a dilemma. He was eating well and clinging well, and although his landings were still pretty awkward, they were getting more secure. Much as I enjoyed his company, I figured his best chance of a full recovery was outside. It was a cloudy and cool morning, but no rain was expected, and so I brought him to my backyard, held him in my open hand, and said goodbye. He looked at me, looked all around, looked at me again, and took off. He landed securely in my backyard spruce tree, on a horizontal branch. I ran in and got my camera and took some photos of him looking down at me. He stayed there at least five minutes and then suddenly took off again, this time alighting in a tree in my neighbors’ yard. I headed over there, but he took off again, and this time I lost him. He was on his way.

There are so many dangers out there that any bird can be killed at any time on any day. This White-breasted Nuthatch had almost been killed seven days earlier. Now he wasn’t quite 100% recovered, but was chipper and healthy, ready to take over as master of his own fate. I whispered to no one in particular, hoping the message would reach him wherever he was, “Live long and prosper.”