Richard Craib raised his family on Turquoise Way, his backyard abutting the upper reaches of Glen Canyon. This summer he oversaw a family of white-breasted nuthatches at the house he built and has lived in since 1962.
Craib recently sat in his living room, which overlooks a mini-forest of pines, cypresses and redwoods. A barn owl box he’d fastened to a backyard pine stared back at him.
It’s now empty.
But a Douglas fir beam that runs along his inside ceiling and continues on the other side of his sitting room window wasn’t.
As Craib watched, a nuthatch exited a cavity it had burrowed in the exterior part of the dark-stained beam. It moved acrobatically, twisting its head, searching for an insect or meaty seed, then flew off, alighting on a pine branch.
“There was a hole in the wood,” Craib said, “but the nuthatch made it larger.”
While Craib studied the outside beam, a second nuthatch peeked from the hole. It stepped out, then decided sanctuary was more important than scenery. Its plumage was warm and blue-gray, its under-parts whitish.
“This has been going on for three weeks now,” Craib said.
Nuthatches, typically four inches long with a wingspan of nearly eight inches, range from British Columbia through the western United States and as far south as Mexico. They are songbirds that weigh, on average, well below an ounce. They commonly nest in dead conifer stubs, lining the bottoms of cavities with pinecone scales, plant duff and animal renderings.
Craib stood and walked onto his deck. Below, in the park, a dog walker trailed his unleashed pet up the slope, stepping beneath Craib’s vacant owl house. Soon he and his dog were lost to view, swallowed by deciduous tree limbs.
“The birds stopped excavating and started housekeeping,” Craib said. “The female may be laying eggs.”
Females lay from four to nine eggs, depositing them in tree cavities and doing most of the incubation, which lasts for approximately 16 days. Young nuthatches leave the nest about 22 days after experiencing daylight.
Their lifespan is on average 18 months, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The species is gregarious, nesting in pairs, and they typically roost communally, a hundred of them capable of huddling in sequestered crevices. Adults and young remain together, nesting at night for warmth and protection. This cooperative behavior is rare among birds.
“I think they may be building a condominium for friends,” Craib said of his resident birds.
Clamorous stuttering—bit, bit, bit—echoed throughout his living room. “It begins about 6 o’clock each morning,” he said about the chorus, “and ends at dusk.”
Hyperactive in its behavior, the nuthatch’s incessant and staccato vocalization is a consequence of its culinary appetite.
The bird gets its common name, according to Andy McCormick, in an article on the pygmy nuthatch in the Eastside Audubon newsletter, from jamming large nuts and acorns into long-needled ponderosa pine forest habitat. After wedging large nuts and acorns into tree bark, they peck and whack them with sharp bills, “hatching” out the seed from the inside.
This makes a racket, the nuthatch version of perennial city street construction jackhammers.
“Nuthatches are singular,” Craib said of his winged visitors, “in that they walk down a tree.”
With such patented gymnastics, nuthatches forage headfirst down tree trunks, searching for invertebrates and twigs to feather their arboreal dugouts.
Nuthatch existence is threatened not just by cold and predation; the high-strung birds “are endangered in the wild by logging, forest fire and fire suppression,” McCormick wrote.
Craib is the former president of Friends of Glen Canyon Park, and helped establish the Little Red Hen Community Garden adjacent to the Police Academy. Living next to Glen Canyon, he is familiar with noisy critters.
“I’ve shared my backyard with raccoons, possums and skunks,” he said. “I’ve had beehives back there, 17 mallards that would fly around and land in my kids’ wading pool, even 25 laying Leghorn chickens.”
“In 1983, I donated the last of the chickens to the (Randall) Museum after raccoons made a meal of them.”
The nuthatches were muffled only by the length of the Douglas fir beam running from the living room out to a hummock of shrubs and trees.
Ha, ha, ha! the aerial homesteaders’ serenade began each morning.
Then, having enjoyed their visit to the edge of Glen Canyon, the nuthatches moved on, restoring a modicum of serenity.
This article was previously published in the Fall 2018 print edition of the Glen Park News.