Here Come the Pygmies!

Stillwater Diary, December 17, 2018

What’s your favorite bird?

Mine is whatever’s fluttering around my feeders, so today it’s the pygmy nuthatch. They’re perky little guys with bright eyes and cheerful dispositions that bop around the deck going “beep! beep!” all day long. According to the Cornell bird site, they sound like rubber duckies. That’s a pretty good description.

But they’re more than just another adorable, stubby little beak. Unlike most birds, pygmy nuthatches live in fairly complex societies. As many as 150 can occupy the cavities in a single dead snag. Mom, Dad, and the kids, along with aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents, pile into the chosen spot and stack themselves like a cord of wood to stay warm. They can depress their body temperature in order to conserve energy if food is scarce.

Interestingly, they maintain their extended family groups even when breeding. A nesting pair is often accompanied by a  couple of older males, usually offspring from the previous year. These “uncles” help feed the mother bird while she incubates the eggs, and they chase off predators like squirrels and weasels.

My pygmies love the black oil sunflower seeds and suet that fill my feeders, and are by far my most abundant visitors. I’ve been working on taming them (I know, I’m turning into the crazy lady who lives in the woods), and they’re getting more and more confident. They flutter around my head and shoulders, sometimes landing on the feeder before I’ve hung it up. 

I’m happy to feed them, because there’s a good chance they helped save our Ponderosa forest from the plague of pine beetles that ravaged the West about five years ago. In summertime, the pygmies patrol the pines, digging under the bark for hidden insects. We keep our woods fairly clear of deadwood (another means of discouraging beetles), but we always leave a few big hollow trees to encourage these tiny forest rescuers. The ones who attend my feeder mostly live in a big snag that’s just off my deck (see illustration at left).

It’s always interesting to see how our local critters adapt to our cold mountain winters. While I’m sitting by the fire, struggling to get my temperature up, I can’t help thinking of the little nuthatches huddled out there in the tree, letting their temperatures drop to just above the torpor stage so they can conserve energy while they sleep.

Actually, I feel like I hit the torpor stage when I sleep, too. Maybe that’s why I always wake up cold! But the nuthatches find their daytime energy level quickly. They’re chirping and bustling about while I’m still hunched over breakfast.

Sigh. We can all learn from the birds, right?

Do you put up bird feeders? What’ your favorite bird? Let me know in the comments below!