For the Birds Radio Program: Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
Laura talks about one of her favorite signs of spring.
I’m recording this program on March 14, 2000. One day last week the temperature reached 70, and the next day I saw my first robin. Swans, geese, and ducks are swimming about in the St. Louis River to the tune of the first Killdeer calls and Red-winged Blackbird songs. Woodcock are performing their skydance in clearings.
Yet to me these are like Christmas decorations that sprout up in department stores before Thanksgiving–they’re hardly proof of spring. It’s not that we’ve had two snowfalls since last week–snow is hardly inconsistent with a Duluth spring. The evidence I’m searching for to prove that spring has really sprung will appear in the aspen tree in my own backyard. Every morning I carefully use my binoculars to search every one of its branches. One morning a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker will suddenly just be there, quietly tapping for aspen sap, and I will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that spring has truly arrived.
A lot of people dislike sapsuckers because they are harmful to expensive ornamental trees. This is a problem, to be sure, but it’s fairly preventable–when a sapsucker attacks a beloved tree, we can ring the trunk with aluminum sheeting until the woodpecker moves on. Most of the trees sapsuckers riddle with their little holes are just old aspens and other ordinary trees, and most of these have no trouble withstanding a sapsucker’s drillings. The ones that do succumb at least provide food and homes for other woodpeckers as they decay.
Sapsucker may be the only woodpecker that damages living tree tissue, but they give the earth back a lot more than they take. The sap that oozes from their drill holes feeds far more than just sapsuckers. It’s the first source of food for many returning migrants, from kinglets and warblers to hummingbirds. Our hummers usually return the first week of May, when blooming flowers are still few and far between in north country. They two places I most often see them taking sweet sustenance and tiny insects are at the tips of spruce branches and at sapsucker drill holes. Cape May Warblers have the sweetest beak of any warbler, and they are another species especially drawn to sapsucker drill holes. In the nineteen springs since I first moved to Peabody Street, my first kinglet and Yellow-rumped Warbler have virtually always been seen in my own back yard, in my aspen tree, at the sapsucker drill holes.
Adult male Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers have a beautiful and dramatic face pattern, but overall sapsuckers look scruffier than our clean-patterned Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. Their drill pattern is rather scruffy, too-they sound like they were just given a new drum and don’t have a clue how to use it, or any innate sense of rhythm. And even their name subjects them to ridicule. Even if it’s hard for some people to give Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers their respect and affection, any birder worth his or her salt pays attention to them at least for the company they keep. Me, I love them, and consider them the truest, most helpful of all the signs of spring.