The Red-breasted Nuthatch Winter of ’12

Our insatiable hordes of gobbling Pine Siskins have pretty much moved on, greatly to the relief of our savings account, but we’re still enjoying the sweet little Red-breasted Nuthatches that seem to have settled in for the season. They’re no less ravenous than the streaky finches, and every bit as tame. I can hardly rehang the feeder before one of the little tooters lights on it, and it’s just a matter of time before they start landing on me, too.

Lots of backyard birders in the east have been taking advantage of the birds’ tameness this fall to train them to take food from the hand. I disapprove, in my puritanically strict hands-offitude, but the dozens upon dozens of accounts of hand-feeding I’ve read over the past couple of months got me to wondering: who first figured out that you could coax wild birds to take sunflower seed directly from a human?

There’s probably no answer to that, at least not until we’ve identified the original domesticator of the chicken. Meanwhile, though, let me introduce you to young Harriet Kinsley of McGregor, Iowa.

Wilson Bulletin 27.2 (1912): 314.

Exactly a hundred years ago this fall, Harriet and her mother discovered a new bird in their yard, one that

took it for granted that he was the sole owner of the feeding table, and it took a great deal of his time trying to keep the other birds away,

among them the numerous “chickadees, downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers,  juncoes, a pair of cardinals, blue jays and the white-breasted nuthatches.” Neither Harriet nor her mother had seen the species before, but they took careful note of the bird’s plumage characters:

a bluish slate-colored back with black stripes running back above each eye and the breast tinged with rufous.

Harriet looked the stranger up in her bird book, and correctly identified it as a Red-breasted Nuthatch. It was her mother’s idea to teach the bird, which was soon burdened with the inevitable nickname “Hatchie,” to eat from her hand:

One day my mother thought she would put a nut meat on her hand and see how near he would come to it. He wanted the nut very much, but was a little shy about coming down to get it ; he scolded, cocking his head first on one side and then on the other. The temptation was too great; he would risk his life: he made a swoop, lighting on her hand, and away he went with the nut. The next day we all tried the same thing and found he would take them after a great deal of scolding. We fed him every day and he gradually grew less timid.
“Less timid” indeed: Harriet’s account, published in the Wilson Bulletin, makes it sound like the family was terrorized by the sharp-billed little beast. He started to demand to be fed — and only butternuts, if you please, no black walnuts — perching on doors and window sills to look into the house.
We had to keep little piles of nuts by several of the windows so we would not have to go so far.
The Kinsley family’s servitude lasted all through the winter, ending only on March 31, 1913, when their importunate guest finally flew north.
And what about Harriet? Even in those more relaxed days a century ago, when the Wilson Ornithological Club was still pronouncedly regional and midwestern in its “flavor,” it was remarkable to find a Campfire Girl publishing in the pages of the Wilson Bulletin. She is still listed as a member of the Club in 1917, but disappears from the rolls by 1920. No doubt the responsibilities of adulthood had set in by then, taking up the time that she had spent as a girl watching the bird tables.
Before life caught up with her (she married Roy Neff, the principal of McGregor High School in 1929), though, Harriet had almost certainly had contact with two of twentieth-century Iowa’s prominent ornithological observers — both of them fellow members of the Wilson Club.
Mary E. Hatch of McGregor was an assiduous collector of migration records and the author of (fairly vapid) articles in the Wilson Bulletin on the Northern Cardinal and the House Wren in northeastern Iowa. In that same cold winter of 1912 when Harriet Kinsley was feeding birds from her hand, Mary (no relation, I’m sure, to Hatchie) also noted several unusual birds — among them Red-bellied Woodpeckers, a Carolina Wren, a Winter Wren, and three “Kentucky Cardinals” — among “the  large  number of pensioners” visiting her family’s “well-filled table.”

I don’t know whether Mary Hatch was also a Campfire Girl, but both young women must have found inspiration in the bird studies of their famous neighbor in National (she received her mail in McGregor), Althea Sherman.

Well known today — better known than in her lifetime, I’d guess — as a champion of the Chimney Swift and an equally fervent enemy of House Wrens and screech-owls, Sherman was also an enthusiastic feeder of the winter birds, particularly fond of the woodpeckers that visited her dooryard to partake of her special mixture of suet, cornmeal, and walnuts. Like Harriet Kinsley and Mary Hatch, she took special note of the Red-bellied Woodpecker,

whose habitat is in deep, wooded ravines, [and is] very rarely … seen upon the prairie. To have one come in mid-winter, find food, even to visit the feeding-stick and linger around for three weeks, was as pleasant as it was unexpected.
Sherman’s mention of “many experiments … made to learn the winter bird boarders’ choice in foods” recalls — and may well have inspired — Harriet Kinsley’s offering her tame nuthatch a choice between butternuts and walnuts. I am still in search of the missing link (nowadays I think we’d call it the missing url) to establish the connection between Harriet, Mary, and Althea Sherman, but their experiences and their writings suggest that McGregor, Iowa, a little town on the Mississippi, was the place to be a hundred years ago, in the nuthatch winter of 1912.