“Swallowing the Nuthatch” sounds like one of those euphemisms employed to describe another event in the same vein as “Seeing the Elephant” or “Pushing the Envelope.” But, in this case, it serves to describe something that nearly happened – I did nearly swallow a nuthatch. To be specific, the nuthatch in question was a Red-breasted Nuthatch.
It was an unusual thing, to be sure, because I rarely see this diminutive species in my yard (the White-breasted variety are far more common around here) and even odder that I came close to receiving one in my mouth! I was taking out the trash – a task that led me out the front door and through a narrow space between the front corner of the house and a large cedar bush. It was at that point when a grayish blue blur whizzed past and perched on the cedar branch only inches from my head. We eyed each other for a second before the startled bird launched. I instinctively ducked as it whizzed over my head and landed on a maple tree branch about twenty feet away.
It was only after the bird landed on the distant perch that I was able to identify it as a Red-breasted Nuthatch. A black line through the eye, a rusty breast, and a series of “tin horn” toots confirmed the I.D. The question that remained, however, was the reason why the little ‘hatch was on that cedar bush to begin with. Like their larger White-breasted cousins, Red-breasted Nuthatches spend most of their time working up and down tree trunks and large branches.
A bunch of Black-capped Chickadees were flitting around the same cedar on that morning and they eventually provided the answer. I watched and waited for several days after that incident in order to see what the birds were doing. The Chickadees were more than willing to show me (the traumatized Nuthatch was never seen again). The tiny birds were landing directly on the tiny cones, probing into the open scales and extracting sizable seeds.
I’ve always liked my Cedar bush/tree. It is not especially attractive and was planted in the wrong place by the previous owners. But because it serves as winter cover for many local birds, and remains vibrant green throughout the long winters, it has remained. I’ve always assumed it to be a Northern White Cedar. As a naturalist, I should have paid more attention.
This year the tree was having an especially productive year and was covered with hundreds of cones. Wild White Cedars have very small cones- less than ½ inch in length and are covered with papery scales. I did notice that the cones on my cedar were heftier than the wild ones, but I chalked that up to the fact that I said hello to it every morning. A closer examination of the cones, prompted by the Nuthatch incident, revealed that they were very different from those on the native wild trees.
To begin with, the cones were distinctly bluish and each scale was endowed with a prominent spur. They were opening naturally in the late fall air and, although most were emptied already by the feathered clan, some still had their cargo of oblong seeds. Considering the size of the cones, these seeds were quite large (about ¼ in.) and were un-winged. Northern White Cedars have two small wings attached to either side of their much smaller seeds.
I popped one of them in my mouth and found it to be nutty and refined in taste (like pine-nuts). If it was good enough for a nuthatch or a Chickadee it was good enough for me. Of course these same critters also eat maggots and caterpillars I am not tempted to take this comparison any further.
While munching I was forced to consider that this was not a White Cedar. To save you the process, let me simply state that this bush/tree – my bush/tree- is a Chinese Arborvitae. A native of Asia, this species is commonly planted as an ornamental because it never attains any great size (ohhh, so that’s why my tree hasn’t grown much in the last two and a half decades!). They are related to our White Cedars and share with it a common group name of Arborvitae. This is a term that means “Tree of Life” and given the context of this blog, I find this a very appropriate term. The addition of a wildlife food value to the list of this tree’s benefits has cemented it’s value in my mind.
I learned several things this week, not the least of which was discovering the secret of a bush/tree that has been in my face every day for over twenty-five years. I also found out that my Naturalist instincts were not working as well as they should. But, there remains one un-answered question. I know what a Chinese Arborvitae seed tastes like but still wonder what a Red-breasted Nuthatch would have tasted like.