Since relocating 2 months ago I’ve met most of the folks who share my new building, in spite of having been on the road quite a bit during that time. Travel has hindered my ability to meet my non-human neighbors, though. Oh, I’ve spied a familiar wild face here and there while transporting cardboard to the recycle bin or driving to the grocery store, but I’ve been on the lookout for a chance to get up close and personal with some of the local color.

So, last Sunday, when the weather-heads predicted a halcyon day, I decided to turn my back on an always too long to-do list and make a break for it… for a little while anyway. Closing my laptop quickly, before responsibility reared its ugly head, I slipped into some high-tech socks and comfy hiking shoes, hustled my canine companion into his travel crate, and set a course for a nearby state park.

Ah… there’s nothing quite like a change of scenery to give you a new perspective. Case in point: watching a brown-headed nuthatch (Sitta pusilla) bustle around a tree trunk, seemingly unaware of any difference between up and down, it occurred to me that concepts like ascending and descending may not be equally important to every earthling. Depending on your perspective, M.C. Escher could be considered a Realist.

I’d never before met this non-migratory species, found year-round in pine forests throughout the southeast. However, while living in New Mexico I had a chance to became acquainted with some of the bustier members of the clan—the white-breasted (Sitta carolinensis) and red-breasted (Sitta canadensis) nuthatches*— so I immediately saw a family resemblance. Male and female brown-headed nuthatches share the same plumage—a handsome, understated pallet of topaz, slate and chalk. They are curious creatures, bolder than you might expect from a bird smaller than an index card, and not at all intimidated or shy around people. The voice is larger-than-life too, often sounding remarkably like an oversized rubber ducky. Disconcerting, when you’re not soaking in a tub of warm bubbles.

Based on its diminutive size and highly-caffeinated demeanor, you may assume this bird is a fragile creature.  But first impressions can be deceiving—better take a second look. Change your point of view. Then watch that sharp black chisel of a beak slam repeatedly through steely seedcases and ask how long your own head and neck could handle such an assault. Delicate? That’s right. Like a jackhammer.

But seriously, what could be more harmless than a 10-gram puff of down and feathers? Not much, as long as you’re a human. But if you were an arthropod, you might see that beneath that innocuous exterior beats the heart of an assassin who spends each day ruthlessly combing the piney woods for six- and eight-legged targets, carrying a small bark shiv to pry victims out of cracks and crevices when they refuse to surrender to their fate.

Like I said, it’s all a matter of perspective.

*Technically speaking, only mammals have breasts; if the truth in advertising rules were strictly enforced, KFC would be selling chicken chests.

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© 2011 Next-Door Nature— no reprints without written permission from the author. Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through Creative Commons License: Vicki DeLoach, and Matt Tillett.