Friday, 23 May 2014

Jasper: A little bird's tale.

Every once in a while life throws you something that you didn’t see coming but the experience of which will stay with you forever more.  Such an event happened to me last weekend in the form of this little chap.

Meet Jasper.

This is Jasper, a baby nuthatch which came into my care on the day of our country fair at Mottisfont, last Saturday.  The sun was shining and the day was going brilliantly with lots of people enjoying the different stands, from the cider tasting to the have a go tractor.  Michelle and I were manning the Caravan of Love and doing marshmallow toasting and bug hotel making (both of which were as much a hit with the adults as they were with the kids) when Dylan came over to ask me to come and see what a visitor had found.  I followed him to one of our big Sweet Chestnut tree’s which stand in the grounds and there, hunched into the bark at the bottom was a tiny, baby nuthatch, fallen from the nest hole. 

Now it is fairly common to find fledgling birds sitting in hedgerows at this time of year, looking like they have been abandoned or lost but that are in fact, still being cared for by its parents.  Blackbirds, Thrushes, Robins and many birds will keep feeding the young that fall out the nest as long as it is nearby.  However this is harder to do with high tree dwelling birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches that nest up in holes and cavities.  The likelihood of the chick being able to climb all the way back up to the nest is very low.  With this in mind, having looked around for any sign of its parents and seeing none and with the knowledge of just how many cats roam the gardens of Mottisfont I made the snap decision and scooped up the little chick (the whole human scent on the bird putting off its parents is actually a myth; birds have a very poor sense of smell).  

So there I was nuthatch in hand, partially bald and with feathers sticking out at funny angles (the bird, not me) and I was suddenly all it had to rely on.  I went immediately and found some earthworms and to my surprise and delight, the minute I dangled them over his beak he cheeped and opened wide and gobbled them all down, one after the other.

Good start! If a baby animal is willing to eat then it still has strong fight left in it.  I made a temporary nest for him (I say him, but you can’t tell with nuthatches) in a paper cup whilst I finished the country fair and then whizzed off to get a supply of mealworms.  

Mealworms soaked in water proved a hit and Jasper took as many as I could feed him, peeping loudly and baby beak open wide as if he still had to fight for food against his siblings.  I have a few old nests that I’ve collected over time and I chose the mud lined blackbirds nest, with some hamster bedding for warmth, as his new home.  He would sit in it quite happily, blinking at the world and waiting for the looming shadow that meant food was here. 
I fed him at hourly intervals, or more if he started calling for it and I witnessed the hilarious wonder of baby bird hygiene;  every time he was fed, he would then whip round, point his feathered bottom up over the side of the nest and out would shoot a little poo pellet, over the edge.  Chicks do this in order to make sure the nest stays clean of poo and the fact that he was doing it showed all his natural instincts were still strong within.  

Looking up for his next meal to appear.
 It was the usual perfect timing that I was actually due to go to a party up near Bristol that first night so I packed up Jasper and his nest into a small box and took a supply of mealworms and off we went.  Needless to say he was a bit of a talking point, but I was able to tuck him away in a glass fronted cabinet (safe out the reach of cats and children) and feed him every hour during daylight.  When night came he put his head under his wing and went to sleep, leaving me free to party on….until I came to go to bed at dawn, when the rising sun awoke him just as I was going to sleep, and I ended up getting up every hour to feed him whilst trying to ignore the need for hungover unbroken sleep and quietness.  Throughout that day he would start to nestle in the nook of my arm and doze between feeds and his last feed of the evening saw him take only one mealworm and then close his eyes and lean his head on my thumb - it was obviously past his bed time!

By Monday he was getting more active and would happily run up and down my arm and my top, practicing clinging on with his skeletal, long toes which are what allows nuthatches to run up and down trees the way they do.  At work he would sit on my shoulder and back whilst I was at my desk or whilst I was out and about walking.  When I had physical work to do I put him back into his nest to avoid him being squashed.  
See his long grippy toes? Brilliant for tree climbing.
 Each day that passed I could see the changes, a few more feathers would appear, his tail started to bulk out and his colouring seemed to deepen. He developed more sounds, from just having a baby cheeping cry to a sort of annoyed 'tch tch tch!' which he would make when he was offered one mealworm too many and he would turn his head away from it.  He still had two funny fluffy baby feathers that stuck out his head like crazy Einstein hair, but which were firmly attached.

Tuesday and Wednesday saw Lee, Laura and I go to the Isle of Wight on a 2 day grassland forum hosted by the local National Trust and it was on this trip that Laura came up with the name Jasper for him. Of course this timing meant again, I had to take Jasper with me and so he swiftly became the most well-travelled nuthatch in all the land and made the crossing from the mainland.  
The forum was excellent, we had 2 days of walking around their different grassland sites being shown how they managed them, grazed them, things that worked and things that didn’t.  There were NT people there from all across the South of England and everyone shared ideas and opinions and experiences from their own sites.  For the first day, which was very windy up on the hills were we walked, Jasper kept himself tucked in under my fleece and jacket, nestling in against my collar bone.  I would unzip the coat and pop him a few mealworms when required, to keep him quiet and happy and in return he would stick his fuzzy bottom out and expel a poo onto the floor.  Then I would zip back up to keep the wind out and he was so quiet and content that no one knew he was there until the evening when he was out and sitting on my shoulder at the campsite. 
Still there? Just checking.

 As we drove around from site to site Jasper would sit up on my shoulder preening himself vigorously, shedding baby bird dandruff and feathers as he continued to grow plumage.  Watching him scratching his head with his foot, only to topple off the shoulder as he lost his balance and had to scrabble back up amused Lee, Laura and I no end.  He was a very bold and charismatic bird, seemingly quite content with his lot. When we turned the truck’s air con on full blast he would stand up straight and flap his wings, trying to fly but still unable to manage it. He would lean into the G-force as we went round corners like a pro rally driver and he would also start to peck at my shoulder or my head as if I were a juicy nut to crack, or a piece of bark that might expel a tasty bug.  If he hopped off around the truck exploring, a squeaking noise from my pursed lips would bring him back for his next meal.  I think he kept mistaking my earring for a mealworm as it has a long wooden tapered point that hangs down and Laura kept creasing up laughing as he tried to eat it. 
Laura was concerned that he wasn’t hearing enough nuthatch noise, so she played him the call of a nuthatch from an app on Lee’s phone – he didn’t seem to make too much of it, but did listen with his head cocked to one side, as if dredging up a memory.
Practicing his pecking - on my head.

On the second day of the trip the weather improved and he was able to sit out on my shoulder more as we went round the sites.  I was cautious though, that he shouldn’t fledge on the Island as I wanted him to go back to where he came from, but luckily he was still unable to fly.  Paul, one of the Isle of Wight team, gave me some tips on teaching him to hunt for himself, and many of the other visiting NT folk took photos of him – he became quite a celebrity!

And so two days passed and on our way home on Wednesday evening, Jasper preened himself more vigorously on my shoulder, kept stretching his wings and then started giving fluttery hops from me to the seat, to Laura, back to me.  He seemed to be achieving a bit of air as oppose to just plummeting straight down and I suspected he was beginning the first wing flaps to flight.  

That evening, back at home he favoured my head to sit on now, instead of my shoulder, possibly because it was higher. He also made some good attempts at flying, sometimes getting it right and landing on my head, sometimes missing and sailing over the top and crashing.  As I went around the house unpacking and sorting stuff out, he rode around, hopping between my head and my shoulder and still preening.  Then as I was hanging out my washing in a room he fluttered from me and onto the hat stand where he instantly nestled down in the fold of a scarf.  Ah ha! I thought – he is displaying his own nesting instinct, flying to the most tree like thing I own (hat stand) and finding a nook to sleep in.  This was a sure sign that he was maturing and I turned the light off and left him there.

Can you spot him nestled in the hat stand?

 Thursday morning I was awoken by his cheeping cry and found him standing on the very top of the hat stand calling.  I took him on my shoulder and as I made breakfast he flew from curtain to curtain confidently, clinging on and running downwards like a true nuthatch and I knew the day had come.

On the way to work he hopped from my shoulder onto the steering wheel and sat happily watching the road ahead (I do wonder if other driver’s noticed!) and enjoying clinging on with his toes as I turned the wheel to drive.  When I went round a roundabout he rode the wheel all the way round until the last bit when he lost his balance and flew off into the gear stick in a fluff of feathers and cheeping.  He soon scrambled up onto my arm and back up onto my head to assume a higher view and sense of authority.

Driving to work - i was unable to get a photo (road safety an' all) so had to draw it, as it was too amusing to miss!)

 We got to work where he was admired by the Thursday volunteers who were admittedly surprised to find a small bird sitting on my shoulder.  He seemed to be pecking at my shoulder more and more which I also took as a good sign that his instinct to hunt and peck at the bark of trees was ever growing.  I wasn’t entirely sure how to do this next bit.  Do I put him on the tree he came from and see if he ran up it?  Do I try putting mealworms on the bark to get him to feed from them?  Do I wait and see if his parents are still around and then see if they hear him call?  

With Jasper on my shoulder I walked towards the tree we found him under still pondering the best course of action.  The grounds were empty as we were not yet open and for the minute it was just us.  I stood in front of the towering Sweet Chestnut and, before I could decide what to do, Jasper peeped a last goodbye in my ear, left me one last poo on my shoulder, then hopped from my shoulder to my head and from there flew straight up into the tree of his birth.
Well!  He had made the decision for me, not even hesitating to know which tree was his and where he came from!  He ran up the trunk pecking at the bark all the way.  As he got higher, I saw several other nuthatches, including an adult, flying around the branches calling and he listened intently before flying to another branch of the tree.  He continued pecking the bark looking for food and started returning the call of the other nuthatches, which may very well have been his siblings, themselves just fledged.  I watched him until he flew into the next tree, a tall pine, and out of my sight, leaving me with a deep sense of satisfaction and happiness, a bird turd on my shoulder and a sudden sense of empty sound – no more cheeping in my ear.  I ambled down the path to my office with my fingers crossed and tried to ignore the sudden silence everywhere i went.

 Throughout the day, I walked past the tree several times and either saw no nuthatches at all, or else several of them all together preening themselves high up in the sun.  I felt a huge sense of relief that he was not sat alone and cheeping for me to feed him – he was obviously off with his family group and back home.  I have kept my eyes peeled again for him today but the weather is so foul that he and his mates must all be sheltering somewhere safe and hidden.  It was only last thing as the sun finally came out, that i spotted, high up in the pine, a group of nuthatches flitting from pine cone to pine cone, pecking out seeds and chattering to each other.

And so there we have it. A little bird’s tale, that blessed me with 6 days of being able to watch the character and instincts of the nuthatch grow and develop first hand and experience for myself the lively, bold quirkiness of this little bird.

So Jasper; live long, live well, remember what I told you about cats and if you ever see me walking by on my way to work –feel free to fly down and say hello.


Chilling on the Isle of Wight; Jasper and Me.


  1. This is amazing! What a lovely story :) thanks for sharing it, I love reading your blog.

  2. Thank you so much Claire, good to hear you enjoy reading it as much as i enjoy writing it - especially this story, not one i will get to tell every day!

  3. Nice one cat. great read and happy tale, Jasper was the coolest feathered friend. i cant bring myself to clean all the poo, birdruff and meal worm juice from my truck!
    From lee