I’ve recently had the delight of discovering Our Amazing Birds: The little-known facts about their private lives (1951), a collection of short essays with cooky, humorous, and less commonly known tidbits about common birds in the US. The book was written by Robert S. Lemmon, a naturalist in the early-mid 1900’s and author of books on a variety of topics, ranging from Training the Dog to All About Moths and Butterflies. Click here to read his obituary from 1964.
In this series, I share with you excerpts from some of my favorite essays. They’re light-hearted reads to get your bird-nerd fix on a fall afternoon. To read the full stories, find a copy of this book — I promise you won’t regret it!
White-breasted nuthatch: Our champion upside-down bird
“A young farmer neighbor of mine, untrained in the niceties of ornithology but, like many countrymen, keenly observant of its facts, calls the white-breasted nuthatch “that upside-down bird.” No name could be more appropriate, for this nuthatch, at least during waking hours, spends fully as much time with its head lower than its tail as it does in a more conventional position. Why the bird seems to think no more about running headfirst down a vertical tree trunk than of climbing straight up it is doubtless its own affair. To us it looks fool-hardy and provocative of cerebral hemorrhages. But nobody has ever seen a nuthatch come to grief that way!
“This trim little scrap of light gray, black and white with a touch of rusty around its tummy has the special build and temperament of an all-around acrobat. Watch one closely as it searches a nearby tree for insects or gyrates comically at your feeding station while snatching a bit of suet or a sunflower seed, and you will notice how perfectly its legs, with their unusually long-toed feet, are designed to give full stability to the body weight regardless of position. That with the backward tilt of the head when upside down, enables a nuthatch to look literally straight out at the world if it wants to. There is no long tail to get in the way while its owner scrambles about with apparent disregard for all the laws of gravity and safety. The bird is so stocky and perfectly balanced that a somersault means no more to it than a mere flip of a wing.
“With it all, the white-breasted nuthatch is remarkably calm and matter-of-fact. You feel that it has a strong streak of friendliness toward people, too, and no little curiosity about them and their strange ways. With patience you can coax one to take a peanut from your fingers in winter when the hardships of cold and dwindling natural food supply make the birds constant visitors to the feeding tray or suet holder. Speaking in a purely figurative sense, they always maintain a level head, carrying their nonchalance even to the point of not bothering to migrate like so many other birds. Wherever you find them, from Quebec to Florida, they stay around and take care of their own affairs from year’s end to year’s end. The name, incidentally, comes from the birds’ habit of tucking acorns and other nut-like foods in bark crevices as provision against hard times.”
Continue reading in “Our Amazing Birds: The little-known facts about their private lives” by Robert S. Lemmon
Introduction by Brenna Marsicek, Director of Communications
Cover photo by Monica Hall