Manes: Nomination pushed for Nuthatch for state bird
BY JEFF MANES firstname.lastname@example.org June 27, 2014 12:22PM
Tom Johnson (left) and Andy Cullimore. | Supplied photo
Updated: July 30, 2014 6:36AM
NUTHATCHES: (Family Sittidae): Small stout tree-climbers with strong woodpecker-like bills, strong feet. Nuthatches climb down trees headfirst. The white-breasted nuthatch is known by its black cap and beady black eye on a white face. The undertail coverts are chestnut. Food: Bark, insects, seeds, nuts; attracted by suet, sunflower seeds. Range: Canada to Mexico. Habitat: Forests, river woods, shade trees; visits feeders.
— Roger Tory Peterson (from his field guide, “Eastern Birds”)
Along with his buddy Andy Cullimore, Tom Johnson is trying to get Indiana’s state bird changed from the cardinal to the white-breasted nuthatch. Johnson, 32, is single, unemployed and rents part of an old house in Valparaiso. Cullimore had to work the day of the interview.
Did you grow up in Valpo?
“Yes, but I attended Chesterton High School,” Johnson said. “We lived just north of the district line. It was Jackson Township. Care for a soda?”
No, thanks. Were either of your parents raised in the South?
I thought I caught a trace of a southern accent in your voice. Plus, you use the word “soda” rather than “pop.”
“I get that a lot. Most people say I sound and look like Matthew McConaughey. They say I have that persona.”
“Biking. Originally, I bought a mountain bike because I wanted to do a lot of trails. Now I mostly pedal around town. The longest distance I go is about 30 miles. I also like to play volleyball and throw the Frisbee, but Frisbee golf annoys me.”
“I went to Ivy Tech for a semester and didn’t like it. After a couple of years, I moved to Los Angeles. I attended the L.A. Recording School. It was a pretty intense 10-month training course. I had everything from live sound to talent management to equipment maintenance to recording mastering — every aspect of the recording-music industry. I ended up with a certificate.”
How long did you live in California?
“Almost three years. It was a crazy transition from here to there. I can think of a few not-so-polite ways to describe California. People out there are different. They’re the polar opposite of people on the East Coast. Whenever I’ve been to the East Coast it seems people are uptight for some reason. I like living here near Lake Michigan. Like they say, we’re the ‘Third Coast.’ ”
Have you picked up any recording jobs?
“When I moved back from L.A., I spent four or five months trying to get a job in audio, mostly in Chicago. In that business it’s kind of who you know more than what you know. I took my resume to all these studios and the most I was offered was an unpaid internship. I don’t have the money to drive back and forth from Valpo to Chicago just to come home empty-handed. You know?
“I’ve done some live shows for local bands like Chester Brown. And I’ve done some board work.”
“Soundboard. The sound guy is the extra musician. It’s the band’s job to play their songs to the best of their ability. It’s the sound guy’s job — the audio engineer — to make it sound as good as it can in the space it’s being played.
“I did floor coverings for about six years. Andy is a laborer with Local 81. I’m trying to get in there right now.”
Tell me a little bit more about Andy.
“He’s about the most generous person I’ve ever met. He wanted to go on this long road trip and he knew I was unemployed and asked me to tag along with him. I told him I couldn’t afford it. He told me not to worry about it. Andy said, ‘If you can cover most of your meals, we’re good.’ We drove out to the Hualapai Mountains in Arizona. They’re always green.”
What’s with this nuthatch pipe dream?
“On Facebook, we’re calling it ‘White-breasted Nuthatch for Indiana State Bird.’ I don’t know if it’s worthy, but it has kind of picked up and we like where it’s going.”
How did this idea originate?
“Andy’s quite a birder. One day he and I were sitting around drinking a couple bottles of wine and he started talking about what an interesting bird the white-breasted nuthatch is.”
En vino, veritas.
In wine, there’s truth.
“We usually drink beer. Anyway, we set up the Facebook page and formed this group. People have shared the link. We’ve got almost 800 likes so far.”
Have you contacted any state representatives?
“They all have Facebook pages now. We’ve pretty much canvassed them. We’ve shared our link on their pages, but so far we haven’t had any response or got any politicians to sign on. Some of them make you wait to be approved because they don’t want people posting nonsense on their sites.”
There are some real nuthatches, I mean nut cases, out there.
“A couple of people have been real close-minded about it, which is kind of surprising to me.”
Example of an anti, please.
“One lady said, ‘That’s Indiana’s history, you can’t mess with that.’ ”
A traditionalist to be sure. Maybe you should have mentioned to her that Indiana’s state flower was the zinnia from 1931 to 1957 before it was changed to the peony.
“Indiana didn’t even have a state bird until the late 1930s. That’s when we adopted the cardinal.”
Let me play devil’s advocate. Why the nuthatch as the new state bird and not the American goldfinch, wild turkey or the habitat-threatened bobolink? What’s wrong with the cardinal?
“There are seven states that have the cardinal for their state bird. The white-breasted nuthatch is more unique. Indiana is a unique place to live, especially Northwest Indiana. Like the sign says: We’re the crossroads of America.
“A lot of people converge here and a lot of people go different ways from here. You know, the nuthatch has kind of done that, too. You’ll find nuthatches spread out all over this country.”
“The white-breasted nuthatch is here year-round and it’s real adaptive. It can set up a nest just about anywhere and be happy with it. Nuthatches are tough little birds that don’t bail out in the winter. In the summer, they eat a wide variety of food and are good for people who have gardens because they pick the bugs out without harming the plants.”
I figured this one for a tongue-in-cheek interview before setting foot in Tom Johnson’s modest home. But the more I listened to him, the more I got to liking this young man. I hope he gets a job with the union laborers where he can earn a decent living right here in Northwest Indiana, a place where unique folks are real adaptive.
Tough little birds.