The Miwok tribe of California considers nuthatches to be medicine birds, and the Navajo says they are a symbol of old age.
It’s been a while since our last big snowfall, but when it happens, it is always memorable. There was the big snow of 1998 that left 3 feet of snow at our doorstep, encouraging us to build deck covers. Then came the Christmas snow of 2008 that brought 2 1/2 feet of snow. That year, our standard 4-wheel pickup high-centered at the end of our driveway. I remember carrying the gifts back to the house through the deep snow, and we missed Christmas with our families. Other big snow years followed in 2009, 2019, and Christmas 2021 through New Year’s 2022.
The snow started falling Christmas Eve, and by New Year’s Day, 3 feet had fallen, and the snowdrifts were 4 feet high. It was like the big snow of 1998, but with less wind. Temperatures were in the teens and 20s. And like any snowfall, big or small, birds flock to the feeders. They use more energy in inclement weather. I filled the feeders with wild seed mix, sunflower seeds, and suet. With ravenous appetites, I was tending them three times a day. They were a robust flock—hairy, and downy woodpeckers, song sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, Pacific wrens, varied thrushes, spotted towhees, Steller’s jays, red-breasted nuthatches, and many pine siskins. Keeping up with them was diligent work. Another concern was that a flock of this size would almost surely attract predators. Would it be a sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, or red-tailed hawk? Or, the beloved, but fierce, pygmy owl? Our smallest owl that in 2019, went on a killing spree leaving the varied thrushes it had killed.
This time, it was a red-tailed hawk a large juvenile female who landed and flapped her big wings as she ran haphazardly across the snow. Six feet away, while photographing songbirds the flock, like a covey of quail, burst into the air. It was chaos. It was though I’d walked into a scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. It didn’t occur to me to take a photo. I could only watch in disbelief while the hawk flapped from ground to fence where she sat briefly before flying into the woods. It was that final moment, I took the shot.
The red-tailed hawk used a fright and flight technique to scatter the birds. If one were injured, the hawk would take it for its meal. They flew in every direction. Of all of them, only one hit the window—a red-breasted nuthatch. The poor little bird lay on its belly with head tucked against its shoulder. At a glance things looked hopeless.
Twenty-nine degrees Fahrenheit, and snowing hard, seconds mattered. I carefully cupped my hand over the nuthatch and brought him indoors. His tiny heart was beating fast. I spoke softly, and he started to move. I then brushed his head gently. His eyes opened wide. A few minutes later, he moved his head.
I took him outside and held him close as the snow fell around us. Minutes passed. As the nuthatch acclimated, he began to move more. He was getting stronger. I opened my hand to the sky slowly, but he just sat, resting for the longest time enjoying the warmth, and who could blame him? The cold was getting to me. Lifting my hand a little higher, he aimed his beak at the sky and took off. He fluttered ten feet, made a figure-eight, and returned landing on my pant leg. This couldn’t be rushed. He would fly when he was ready. There was nothing to do, but to wait him out.
The minutes passed. Just when I could barely stand the cold any longer, he flew to the deck post and seemed to like it there. As much as I enjoyed his company, I hurried indoors to thaw and watched him from the window. A short time later, and with a thrill in my heart, the nuthatch flew away through the falling snow into the woods.
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