Page 8 - June 2, 2021
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{ 8 }  SNJ Today  |  JUNE 2, 2021                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 JUNE 2, 2021  |   { 9 }
              THE GREAT OUTDOORS

        Special Delivery

     “Nature abhors a vacuum,” said Aristotle—and a pair of
       nuthatches building their nest in a deserted mailbox.

      NATURE AROUND US                 J. Morton Galetto, CU Maurice River

                                                                                                                   TOP LEFT: Young chick takes what appears
                                                                                                                   to be a piece of lichen from its father. Note
                                                                                                                   the pointy beak and black cap of the male.

                                                                                                                   ABOVE: Female descends a tree trunk
                                                                                                                   holding a moth caterpillar that is camou-
                                                                                                                   flaged by the bark background. Note the
                                                                                                                   steely gray blue back and black collar.
                                                                                                                   is believed that the chemicals released from
           n our daily morning walk we pass a     Five white-breasted                                              a crushed insect may repel predators or spe-
           house that is abandoned—boarded   nuthatch chicks await their                                           cific insect pests. Males will also awkwardly
     Oup and hauntingly lonely. In this      next meal in their mailbox                                            crane their necks, fan their tails and dance
     emptiness the mailbox is no longer purpose-  home. RIGHT: The abandoned                                       bizarrely when calling. Kilham identified
                                               mailbox that houses the
     ful. But wait, a white-breasted nuthatch   brood of five. ALL PHOTOS                                          specific calls as indicative of various levels
     descends into the box from a nearby white          BY AUTHOR                                                  of sexual interest and excitement. Evidently
     oak. “A nest, a delivery box,” I think, humor-                                                                the female can watch such performances for
     ing myself. When the adult flies off I peer   interior of the door above the floor. Achiev-  mate on how their chicks’ meals are to be   six to eight minutes at a time in a hypnotic
     into the cavity of darkness and squint to see.   ing this milestone tells me fledging will   offered, much like sending Dad back to the   state of attentiveness. When she is accepting
     My handy phone light allows me to make   happen very soon. After emerging from the   grill when a steak is too rare.  the male’s advances she will swing her head
     out five little faces‚ nuthatch chicks, each   egg the young remain in the nest for just two   Kilham studied pair bonding and relayed   back and forth in a pendulum fashion.
     one more endearing than the next. In the   weeks. Nuthatches have only one clutch per   their “hit-tuck” note exchanges through fall   Males and females are sexually dimor-
     absence of tenants, a void is filled. “Nature   season, so there is little room for error.  and winter. “Much of the answering by the   phic. Males have a black cap and rusty rear
     abhors a vacuum,” I muse.              Males and females make monogamous   two birds is irregular, for one may be feeding   from vent to covert feathers. Females have
       The house has been vacant for a number   bonds and will remain paired beyond   while the other continues calling alone. A   a gray cap and lack the patch of color, with
     of years, but likely not the mailbox. The   the mating season. Sometimes mates are   fast rate of exchanges is 30 a minute, but this   the frosty white extending from cheek to
     oak trees that surround the abode are not   retained for successive seasons. The male is   rate is seldom maintained. The term inti-  coverts. Both have a steely gray back with a
     trimmed or sprayed. Caterpillars and other   the dominant bird, pushing the female aside   mate is appropriate as these notes reflect the   thin white wingbar along the coverts.
     insects are abundant in this oasis. Using my   when competing for food. They have a rath-  close pair bond of a well-established pair.”   They are year-round residents in every
     vehicle as a blind I watch numerous cater-  er elaborate courtship that involves the male   He theorized that the note exchanges help   U.S. state, with a range extending into
     pillars, a live moth, and what appears to be a   presenting the female with a tidbit. This is   the birds to keep track of one another as   southern Canada and interior Mexico. Of
     carpenter ant dutifully delivered to the nest.   common to many songbirds, denoting “I’m   they circle tree trunks. Because of the calls’   the four nuthatches in the United States the
     At about four-minute intervals the parents   a good provider.” The female might reject   variations he believed they also denoted   white-breasted are the most widely distrib-
     alternate in bringing meals. The young are   food that is not prepared before serving.   mood and conveyed information.   uted. Conversely the familiar red-breasted
     nearly ready to fledge and they are consum-  Observations by amateur ornithologist,   In breeding season males have a court-  nuthatch’s range is extended by its winter
     ing their insect diet with great frequency.   physician, and nature writer Lawrence Kil-  ship song and do a lot of bowing when   habitat while it is much more limited during
       At one point an adult seems to pluck   ham included a male having to take a cater-  feeding a female prior to nesting. Males will   breeding. The pigmy nuthatch is confined
     lichen from the rooftop of the box and feed   pillar to a crevice and pierce it several times   actually sing hanging inverted at nesting   to western states. And the brown-headed
     it to a chick who has braved coming to the   before presenting it again to the female   holes and swing into an upright position in   nuthatch is primarily a resident of the
     opening. In order to accept the parental   who then finally accepted it. The female is   silence. Sometimes they will “sweep” the   southeastern U.S.
     passage of food the chick must cling to the   presumed to be schooling her prospective   nest’s entrance with an insect in their bill. It   What about those oaks around the
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