The man on the phone identified himself as Don Paulson from north of Hutchinson, he reads my column regularly and he told me “I have something I think you’d like to see.” It seems he had a wild catbird that would take mealworms from his hand. Before I had made a commitment to go see him, he called back and said he also had a bunch of purple martins in his houses that were busy getting their young to fly and that they might add to the show.
The next morning I arrived at Don’s just after 7 a.m. Don and his family own and operate Nickerson Sand and Gravel Inc. at Nickerson, Kansas, and his house and property are truly befitting of someone in the business of quarrying rock, gravel and sand. Uniquely shaped boulders the size of refrigerators dotted the property both along the driveway and beside a beautiful backyard pond, and the front of the house is built from stone hauled a truck load at a time from an Ellsworth County pasture. Hibiscus and sunflowers beamed at me from various small gardens and patches all around. Don talked at length how he had grown up farming, been in the military, graduated from Kansas State with a degree in economics, married his sweetheart and gone to work, fresh out of college for her father-in-law, JE Steele, owner and operator of JE Steele Sand and Gravel in Hutchinson. JE Steele supplied all the sand to build the famous mile-long grain elevator on the south-eastern corner of Hutchinson. After a couple years Paulson rented a sand and gravel business for a time at Nickerson and in the late 1960’s bought what is now Nickerson Sand and Gravel Inc.
Paulson’s love of birds began some 25 years ago years ago when he began building and hanging bluebird houses around his acreage, one year he knows there were at least 30 young bluebirds fledged from those houses. He began buying mealworms to help feed the hungry younguns’ and found that by putting mealworms in a cup near one particular bluebird house, he could entice the adults to come get worms from the cup. He kept moving the cup closer to where he sat and over time got the birds to come within four feet of him to take worms. Three years ago as he sat at a metal patio table out in front of his garages feeding mealworms to the bluebirds, another bird strange to him darted in from out of nowhere, snagged a mealworm from the driveway and flew off. After a time he was able to identify the cheeky bandit as a catbird. Gray catbirds are robin-sized members of the mimic-thrush family and are named for the “mewing” sound they occasionally make that’s reminiscent of a cat. They are a bit more slender than a robin and are a slate-gray color with a black cap and reddish colored rump. Although my Kansas bird book tells me catbirds do not repeat phrases like mockingbirds and thrashers, they are known to copy sounds of other birds and string them together to create their own repertoire. As Paulson told me the many stories of his catbird, I asked him if he had her named. He replied with a smirk “What do you name a bird; I just call her Tweety-Bird.”
Out in his workshop, Paulson showed me the mealworms he feeds to his hungry birds. He keeps them in long plastic containers with lids and feeds them wheat bran, newspaper and vegetable peelings, much like fishermen feed to night crawlers. Last year he bought and fed 3,000 of them to his hungry bluebirds and to Tweety Bird and her mate for their chicks. After gathering a few worms in a small plastic container, we sat down at a metal patio table on the concrete drive in front of his three garages. Purple martens by the dozens filled the air around four big marten houses sitting along his vegetable garden as they tried to entice young fledglings to hop off the small porches of their houses and begin their flying lessons. Once we were seated, Paulson tapped the worm container loudly on the table a few times to let Tweety Bird know he was there with snacks. Paulson believes a predator got Tweety’s mate this spring, as he found a handful of grey feathers on the ground near a water hole, and now she only appears alone. When she didn’t show for a while, we went and fed the Koi and catfish in the pond, then returned to the table. Every few minutes Paulson tapped the container on the table, and after awhile as we sat there talking, Tweety appeared and sat on the table. He held out a worm in his fingers and she hopped toward him, but I think the strange sound made by my phone camera spooked her and she flew to a nearby perch. In less than a minute she was back on the table, but would not take the worm from his hand, so he tossed it on the concrete just a few feet away, where she grabbed it, plucked off its head and chugged it down in one gulp. That was the last we saw of Tweety Bird that morning, but Paulson said when she was feeding her own hungry brood earlier in the spring, she would gulp three worms every trip, often from his fingers and returned numerous times at each setting.
During my short visit with Don Paulson he told me more stories about his interesting life than I can remember. Like how he, his wife and four young kids put a few belongings in a homemade trailer and drove an old Ford station wagon 4,000 miles in the 1960s to live in Alaska for six months with his sister, and how his pond was dug so he could supply a particular kind of clay soil for the building of the skating rink on Lorraine Street back in the day. And then there was Tweety Bird’s appearance to highlight the morning …Continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors!
Steve can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.