For the Birds Radio Program: Aspen Trees

Original Air Date: April 7, 1995

One of the loveliest of trees is one of the most important for birds in April. 3:54 (Date confirmed.

Audio missing


(Recording of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker)

During the tense days when spring is still fighting its final rounds with winter, while most trees are hedging their bets and holding out their cheers until spring scores a knockout punch, aspen or popple trees teem with life. Their flowers and long, cottony fruiting structures bust out in April, feeding hungry birds and mammals even as late snows swirl about their branches. Look to the aspens for signs of life in early spring. On a drive through the north woods you’re likely to see fat porcupines perched improbably in the delicate outer branches, munching on soft buds and flowers. Spring aspens provide sweet food in abundance, so if you spot a porcupine in one, you can amble on home, get your kids, and come back an hour or two later to see the same porky pigging out on the same popple.

Most springs I spend a lot of time looking out my second-story bedroom window at the aspen tree in my back yard. The long brown flowers, the color of earth and sparrow, wave in the slightest breeze, and so at first it’s not easy to spot the birds within the branches. But as I keep looking, soon I pick out a Yellow-rumped Warbler, darting from branch to branch, hovering like a hummingbird at the tip of a flower, eating fruits and searching for the first insects, which know also to come to aspens for food. For every time I’ve seen April warblers in my spruce tree, I’ve seen them a hundred times in my popple.

The boughs of popples surge with energy. The sun shines on our planet, giving life to plants and animals which then die and enrich the earth. Aspens draw their life from decay and sunshine. Humans burn aspens for energy, but Ruby-crowned Kinglets harness it in a miracle of movement. These perpetual motion machines empower their atom-sized bodies with sunshine transformed into life by aspens, and then return the sunlight to earth in their glittering crowns and the warmth of their song.

(Recording of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet)

Purple Finches increase each spring in direct proportion to the aspen flowers. Great multitudes of these warbling treasures come back to dine on the bounty of my generous tree.

And then there are Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. By the third or fourth week in April, it’s impossible to look into my tree without spotting at least one of these sweet-tongued woodpeckers working the outer branches, eating the fruits and tapping the bark for syrup. Because they perch on the thin outer branches where the flowers are, I can study their bright yellow underparts at leisure. The flaming red patches on the male’s throat and head, against white bark and blue sky, are the truest kind of patriotic display.

Aspens are a lowly tree. People gripe about their suckers sprouting up in lawns, and St. Louis County spent $64,965 in 1988 for herbicide applications to clear them from county road right-of-ways. Nurseries won’t sell them–they’re the weeds of the dendrological world. Yet as fast as we can chop down or poison, aspens regenerate, being one of precious few native American species that have managed to keep their resolve to win the battle against civilization no matter what. They’re the Huck Finns of the north woods—common and plain, but with a heart as big as the sky, and I’m sure glad to have one outside my bedroom window.

(Recording of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker)

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