For the Birds Radio Program: Fall Birds Passing Through Right Now

Original Air Date: Oct. 10, 1986

Sapsuckers, Gray Jays, Boreal Chickadees and more are visiting Duluth backyards right now. (3:30)

Duration: 3′23″


(Recording of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker)

One of the common migrants in Duluth right now is the Yellow- bellied Sapsucker. This woodpecker is fairly silent most of the time in autumn, so it isn’t very noticeable. But I’ve seen as many as a dozen in my Lakeside yard at one time this fall–quietly digging little holes in the trunks of my box elders and spruces, and then eating the inner bark and lapping up the sap with their brush-like tongues. A couple of them have been feeding on sugar water at my hummingbird feeder, and I’ve seen one taking berries from my mountain ash tree, alongside robins and Cedar Waxwings.

Most woodpeckers peck holes in trees that are already infested with insects. But Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers occasionally are the cause of insect damage and the agent for diseases that infiltrate ornamental trees. That’s because their preferred food is sweet running sap, which only flows in healthy trees. Even most of their insect food is composed of the flying bugs that get mired in the sticky sap.

The Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has the distinction of being the bird with perhaps the most absurd, silly name in all of birddom. First of all, although most Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers do have somewhat yellowish underparts, the color is virtually impossible to see in the field, since the bird keeps its underside braced against a tree trunk. And second, sapsuckers do not suck sap–they lap it up with their long, brush-tipped tongues. But I suppose the name “Yellow-bellied Sapsucker” beats calling it a “Somewhat-yellowish-bellied Sap-lapper.”

Another bird visiting Duluth right now is the Dark-eyed Junco. Even if you don’t have a bird feeder, you’ve probably noticed this bird–drive down just about any street in Duluth and flocks of this little bird will fly up along the roadside, their white tail streamers showing as they fly away. An occasional one remains in Duluth all winter, but most of them go further south–they’re common all winter in the southern and central parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Juncoes are one of the species often referred to as “Snow Birds.”

White-throated Sparrows are abundant, too, right now. They seldom sing in autumn, and even when one does, his song sounds pitiful–a dismal version of the beautiful spring whistle.

(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

This fall birders have spotted quite a few visitors that usually stay further north. Gray Jays, also called Canada Jays or Whiskey Jacks, have been seen all over town. These fluffy gray relatives of Blue Jays are tame beggars in national parks and forests, but seem more dignified in town. Boreal Chickadees are also visiting this year. They are much harder to see than Black-capped Chickadees, because they are shyer and more sluggish. Boreal Chickadees have a brown cap and back, unlike the black cap and gray back of a regular chickadee. The best way to spot one is to listen for its call–usually given from a spruce or pine tree. It sounds like a Black-capped Chickadee with a terminal disease.

(Recording of a Boreal Chickadee)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”