For the Birds Radio Program: Fall Visitors to Duluth

Original Air Date: Oct. 17, 1989

Recast from 10-10-1986 (3:28)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker)

One of the common migrants through the Northland 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 at a time in my yard 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 our area 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 outer tail feathers streaming out as they fly away. An occasional one remains in the Northland 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)

The happiest sign on the environmental front is the record number of Peregrine Falcons, both seen and banded at Hawk Ridge this fall. And so far not one of the birds banded or seen at close range, has been from the reintroduction project—all have been of the tundra subspecies, which is so highly migratory that the birds winter in Central and South America. For peregrines to thrive, the birds they prey upon must thrive. That is why birds of prey are such important environmental barometers. The increase in Peregrines may be an encouraging sign that the environment, both in the Arctic and in the open areas of the tropics, are improving, but even more likely is a sign that people have finally stopped shooting them.

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