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Birds That 'Sound Like A Rubber Ducky' Return To Missouri After More Than A Century

A brown-headed nuthatch ready to be released in Missouri. The birds were reintroduced into Missouri for the first time in 100 years.
Michele Skalicky
A brown-headed nuthatch ready to be released in Missouri. The birds were reintroduced into Missouri for the first time in 100 years.

The brown-headed nuthatch was extirpated from Missouri more than 100 years ago due to extensive logging of their habitat, short leaf pine forests.

Fifty-six more brown-headed nuthatches are living amongst shortleaf pines in a section of the Mark Twain National Forest in the Missouri Ozarks.

The second year reintroduction of the birds that were extirpated from the state more than 100 years ago wrapped up in late August.

Brown-headed nuthatches lived in pine woodlands in the Ozarks prior to the late 1800s, said state ornithologist, Sarah Kendrick, with the Missouri Department of Conservation. That’s when extensive logging began that resulted in the removal most of the state’s shortleaf pines.

"When the forest across the Ozarks regenerated, it regenerated into oak and hickory forest, and we lost a lot of that pine woodland forest that the bird used to depend on," Kendrick said. "We have some historic records of the bird from the early 1900s/late 1800s and so, the Mark Twain National Forest has restored pine woodland to a point that we can bring the bird back to Missouri from Arkansas."

Brown-headed nuthatches forage high in the canopy of pine trees, eating seeds and insects.

"They sound like a rubber ducky when they call, so they say, 'squeaka squeaka,'" said Kendrick.

She said it’s a joy to see them back in Missouri.

Forty-six birds were reintroduced to Missouri last year, and Kendrick said they’ve done well. Some of those birds excavated their own next cavities in pine snags and fledged young.

"So, we have our first Missouri-fledged (brown-headed) nuthatches in the state in over 100 years," said Kendrick.

That’s very exciting, she said, and not just to her as an ornithologist.

"The brown-headed nuthatches--this habitat is just one piece of ecosystem restoration," she said. "You know, we didn't bring them back just because they were extirpated but because the Mark Twain National Forest are working very hard to restore this whole ecosystem, not just the habitat, the trees and their structure, the open woodland, but also species that we lost along the way."

A brown-headed nuthatch is prepared for release into a Missouri forest.
Michele Skalicky
A brown-headed nuthatch is prepared for release into a Missouri forest.

The birds were trapped in the Ouachita National Forest in Arkansas, placed in separate cylindrical cardboard containers and flown to the Fort Smith Airport where they were picked up and driven to their new home in Missouri.

Once they reached their destination in the Mark Twain National Forest, Kendrick and her coworkers got to work getting them ready for release.

A feather was taken from each bird to be sent for genetic testing to determine the gender.

Researchers weighed each brown-headed nuthatch by briefly putting it upside down in an empty film container on a scale.

The birds weighed only as much as two nickels or less.

Half of the birds were fitted with a halter on which was a radio tag that would allow researchers to monitor them for a month before the battery dies.

And each bird got a silver federal leg tag along with tags in a unique combination of colors so they can be identified.

"So, when we recite them you read the legs from left top bottom, right top bottom, and so, their tarsi are too short to put a silver band plus a color, and so, we can put up to two bands on the other leg," Kendrick said.

Researchers also determined if the birds were in their hatch years by looking at their feather molts and by examining the tops of their heads to see if their skulls had closed up.

All of the information for each bird was carefully recorded. And after the biologists finished getting each bird ready, it was released into the trees.

The reintroduction of the brown-headed nuthatch to Missouri was a collaborative effort. Hendrick said they worked with several organizations to make it happen.

"One of the coolest parts of this project is just the vast partnerships of many different diverse partners and all of them coming together over years to get this done and everybody working together to see it come to fruition," she said.

This was the final year of the birds’ reintroduction to Missouri.

Researchers will conduct surveys of the birds every month for a year to follow their progress.
Copyright 2021 KSMU. To see more, visit KSMU.

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.
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