Zoee, The Nuthatch by Elizabeth Brightwen

Story type: Essay

A visit to a bird-dealer’s shop always awakens a deep feeling of pity in my mind as I look at the unhappy, flutter-little captives, and think of the breezy hill-sides and pleasant lanes from which they came, to be shut up in cages a few inches square, with but little light, a stifling atmosphere, strange diet, and no means of washing their ruffled feathers or stretching their wings in flight. Truly, they are in evil case, and no wonder so many die off within a few days of their capture! In some places they are better cared for than in others, but in most bird-shops dirt and misery seem to prevail amongst the tenants of the cages.

One such place I have often visited for the sake of meeting with live curios. The owner was a kind-hearted woman, and did not intentionally ill-treat her live-stock; but the shop was very dark and dirty, and one could but wonder how anything contrived to live in such close, stivy air. On going in one day, I nearly walked over a large, pensive-looking duckling which stood in the middle of the shop. His brother had been considered suitable for the adornment of a table-lamp with a looking-glass stand, on which a bright yellow duckling was placed, as if swimming on water; this bird, having some darker markings, was of no use for that purpose and had been allowed to live. He had a strange, old-fashioned look, and gave one the impression that he was already tired of life and felt bored. A lark on its little piece of turf, fluttering and looking up for a glimpse of blue sky; a dejected robin, with no tail to speak of, and sundry other sad-looking specimens met my pitying gaze, and I suppose I had caught their sorrowful expression, for I was startled by a sharp voice near me, saying, “What’s the matter?” I turned to reply, and found the inquiry was made by a grey parrot, who introduced himself as “Pretty Poll,” and was ready to make friends to any extent. But my attention had been caught by seeing what looked like a nuthatch: only it was moping and ill, with eyes shut and feathers ruffled. I asked about it, and was told it had some injury to its foot, and was unsaleable, as the woman feared it would not live. I made a bid for it, and it was accepted. I confess I was not sorry to leave the stilling air of the shop and bring my new pet home. I fitted up a large cage with pieces of wood and tree-bark, a pan for bathing, sand, and fine gravel; a bone with a little meat upon it hung from the roof of the cage, and other suitable food was placed in a tin. The poor birdie was a pitiable object for some days; she ate now and then, but remained for the most part quite still, with closed eyes, from morning till night. Then she began to creep up and down the small tree-stem I had placed in the cage. She took a bath and plumed herself, and in less than a fortnight she became quite well and vigorous, and very amusing in a variety of ways. Never was there a more active, busy little creature.

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Her characteristic was life, so she was named “Zoee,” and before long she seemed to recognize her name, and would give an answering chirp. The pieces of bark appeared to afford a never-failing interest. They were examined and investigated in every crevice. Like a little woodpecker hanging head downwards, Zoee would hammer at a nut fixed in the cracks of the bark, and would hide away unfortunate mealworms not required for immediate use.

Zoee regularly honeycombed the little tree-stem with her incessant hammering, and in the numerous holes thus made she kept her supply of food. No sooner was her tin filled with small pieces of raw meat than she began stowing them all away for future use. She seemed to exercise a good deal of thought about the matter; a morsel would be put in and out of a hole half a dozen times before it was considered settled and suitable, and then it had to be well rammed in and fixed, and off went the busy little creature to fetch another piece, and so on, till all was disposed of, and the tin left empty. Zoee was greatly exercised by a half-opened Brazil nut: it was too large to fix into the bark, it would not keep steady while she pecked at it, and yet there were good things inside which must be obtained. I watched her various devices with great amusement. She hung head downwards from the tree-stem and hammered at it on the ground, but it shifted about, and she made no way; then she carried it in her beak and tried fitting it into various places. I hope she did not swear at it, but she seemed to think the thing was possessed, for it was not like the ordinary nuts: she could manage them; they would go into holes in the bark; this wouldn’t fit anywhere, and yet she could not give it up. At last, by a bright inspiration, she got it fixed into a space between the tree-stem and the side of the cage. Now she was in high glee, and all the household might have heard the rapping that went on while she scooped out the inside and chipped off pieces to be hidden carefully away in some secret place.

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Zoee had a cosy nook under a sloping piece of bark, to which she would retire at times, and sitting down on the bottom of her cage in the shadow, looked like a little grey mouse. When appetite brought her out again, she would go to her tree-larder and pick out the choice hidden morsels, as if they were the insects which would have been her food if her lot had been cast amongst tree-branches instead of in a cage.

When winter began, Zoee was placed in the conservatory, where a tame robin often came for a few hours to enjoy his daily crumbs and the pleasant warmth of the air. Bobby was greatly puzzled at the nuthatch, watched her hammerings from the top of the cage, walked round it, surveying the provisions inside, and at last he made up his mind to get in somehow and partake of the longed-for dainties. I could see quite plainly the attraction, the hesitation, the pros and cons, and then, finally, the resolve, and felt very curious as to how the birdish mind would carry out its intention. There was only one place, where the bars were rather widely apart, so that the nuthatch could have got out if she had possessed half the wits of the robin. After a quiet survey and a few flights backwards and forwards, Bobby saw this place, and made towards it, sat and considered for a few seconds, and finally went in. The nuthatch was sitting quietly under her piece of bark, and did not see him; so he picked up the desired morsels, and, after a few minutes, went out where it came in. These visits he repeated frequently through the day, but once I was amused to see that he forgot “the way out,” and put himself in a great fuss, realized that a cage was a prison, and flew up and down in a fright, until by chance he saw the opening, and glided out. At last Zoee caught him in the act of purloining her goodies, and was most indignant. A rush at the thief, with an angry chirp, sent Bobby flying away in ignominious haste, a wiser, but not a repentant bird; for he continued his robberies, only with care to avoid being caught; he ventured only a little way into the cage, ready to go out at a moment’s notice.

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Zoee had a good deal of quiet humour, and was a character in her way. She considered me very attentively one day, with a roguish look in her black eyes, and then, going to her tree-stem larder, she pulled out a hidden mealworm and held it up for me to see, with an evident wish that I should know about it, and possibly with a little birdish triumph that she possessed such delights; and then it was put back again and well rammed into its crevice until the hungry moment should arrive. After a few months Zoee became tame enough to be let out of her cage, and would hop quietly about the room, and, like a small, grey-coated detective, would peer about stealthily under tables and chairs in search of live dainties; and extremely pretty she looked as she crept up the curtains with jerky motions, evidently thinking they were tree-stems where, by careful search, delightful centipedes and beetles might be found.

I do not know if naturalists have remarked that the nuthatch has a very limited range of vision. Zoee could see nothing beyond twelve or fourteen inches; the most tempting mealworm might lie on the floor of the cage unnoticed if she happened to be on her tree-stem; and I have tried bringing the insect nearer by degrees, and found that only when within a foot of her eyes could she see it, and I fancy then only indistinctly as she would peer about excitedly, as if uncertain what it was, until near enough to be in the focus of clear vision, and then, by a sudden dart, she would seize and flit away with it.

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At first Zoee’s roosting-place was under the curved piece of bark lying on the floor of her cage, but after a time she took up her nightly quarters in a small box which hooked on to the side of her cage. It was a very cramped and uncomfortable lodging, and I wondered how she contrived to squeeze into such a small space. It occurred to me that a little cocoa-nut with a hole at one end would be the sort of sleeping-chamber she would prefer, as being most like a hole in a tree-stem, in which, probably, nuthatches roost.

An empty cocoa-nut was, therefore, provided. With birdish distrust and caution Zoee only eyed it for some days, then perched on it; but finally she went in, and it was amusing to see her evident delight: how she went incessantly in and out, and turned round and round inside, and finally sat down and remained in it for an hour or more, quite still and happy, peering out at any one passing by, her sleek head and neck looking remarkably like a snake, and her furtive black eye observantly watching all that went on around her.

Her cage, when not in the conservatory, was placed on a table in the drawing-room, close to where I was sitting, and thus she was frequently spoken to and noticed, which is one great secret in taming birds and animals. They soon learn to greet one with some token of recognition, and their often solitary lives are brightened and cheered by such companionship.

An amusing thing occurred one day while I was away from home for a few hours. Zoee’s cage had been placed in the sun, and a friend of mine, glancing at the bird, saw her in an apparently dying state, her head hanging on one side, the beak wide open, all the feathers ruffled, and the whole aspect of the bird indicating the near approach of death. The bell was rung, the servants came in, and whispered consultations were held as to what could be done, and “What would mistress say?” seemed the uppermost thought. All at once, Zoee jumped down and began a vigorous hammering at her tree-stem, as full of life as ever, and she was at once voted “a little impostor.” When I returned and heard the account, it was easy to explain that my birdie had been enjoying a sun bath, which always gives rise to most lackadaisical positions while the state of dreamy absorption lasts.

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The mealworms which Zoee mainly lived upon were kept in a tin biscuit-box, which she knew well by sight, and one day, being too busy to spare time to feed her with them, I opened her cage-door and put the box down a little way from the cage on the floor, and placed a small log of wood for her to descend by. Down she came, perched on the edge of the box, looked at the layers of flannel which covered her delightful worms, and tugged at one corner after another till she obtained her prey. After swallowing two or three, she thought a little store might be useful, and began taking them in her beak, and searching for some convenient hiding-places, but as I did not desire to have the drawing-room neatly ornamented with mealworms, I had to prevent that little design being carried out. My tiny pet lived happily for about a year, but when the moulting time came she grew weak and ill, and did not seem to have strength to produce her new plumage; for, in spite of all possible care, she drooped and died. She lives in my memory as one of the most gentle, innocent birdies I have ever had, absolutely without temper, contented and cheerful, a perfect pattern of industry, chipping out holes in her log of wood, and flitting about with a happy little chirp from morning till night, a bright example of what a cheery life may be lived, even by a caged bird, when kindly treated and cared for thoughtfully.

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