Bird Watcher's General Store

Sapsuckers Like Orderly Holes - 01/26/07


Dear Bird Folks,

We stacked our annual cord of firewood today and found a very interesting log. The log is covered with holes that I assume were made by a woodpecker. However, this woodpecker must have been some kind of neat freak because the holes are perfectly aligned, one after the other, forming several orderly rows. The log looks like the underside of a Lego. In fact, we saved the log and have nicknamed it the "Lego Log." What would cause a woodpecker to be so methodical? Did the bugs just happen to be living in rows or was the bird just being weird?

- Helen, Middlebury, VT

Think about it Helen,

You are asking me if the bird was being "weird," yet you are the one who is giving nicknames to a log. "Lego Log," I believe the name was. I know the winters can be long up there in Vermont, but there must be a better way to pass the time other than naming firewood. Have you thought of making hanging mobiles out of old ski poles? I think that would be pretty cool. It would create original art and recycle at the same time. A win, win. If you do it and make millions, I only want 10%. Think about it.

You are right, those holes were caused by a woodpecker, but it was no ordinary woodpecker. It was a sapsucker. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker to be exact. Yes, there really is a bird with such a name. I know it sounds more like a punch line from an old vaudeville routine, but it's a real bird, honest. And the bird really does eat sap and does have a yellowish belly. However, the irony of the bird's name is the "sucker" part. It doesn't suck anything because it doesn't have lips and the bird's access to straws is very limited. In reality it licks the sap. Luckily for vaudeville the bird wasn't called the "yellow-bellied saplicker," because that's not nearly as funny.

There are four species of sapsuckers in North America, but it's the yellow-bellied that is the most well known. Not only does it have the more amusing name, but it is also the most wide spread. It breeds all across Canada from the Alaskan border to Nova Scotia while it spends its winters throughout the Eastern half of the US.

Most woodpeckers specialize in excavating insects, often from deep inside dead trees. If they think there is something good to eat inside, they will start hammering at the trunk causing a shower of wood chips and sawdust, or more appropriately, beakdust. Sapsuckers are more delicate than their other woodpecker pals. What they want is the sap from living trees. The sap-flow isn't very deep, so no macho smacking needed.

In the spring, the sap is flowing up from the roots towards the tree's leaves. To obtain the early sap, the sapsucker digs a series of small, round, horizontal holes. Those are probably the holes you found in your Lego Log, Helen. Later in the summer, after the leaves have had a chance to add some nutrients to the sap, the sap flows back towards the roots. This fortified sap flows just under the bark. This time the bird creates a series of shallow square or rectangular sap wells, making the tree trunk look like a printer's box. That's right, a printer's box. You know, those boxes that everyone thinks are so cute until it's time to dust them.

Sapsuckers also eat fruit, seeds and insects, but mostly they are sap-a-holics. Often after they have caught an insect, they will dip it in sap before eating it, making them one of the few birds to use condiments.

Eating sap is not unique to sapsuckers, but most other birds don't have the skills needed to tap their own tree. They depend on the sapsucker to start the flow, then they happily move in and snack on free sap when the sapsucker isn't looking. Some hummingbirds have been known to follow sapsuckers and build their nests near one of its gooey trees. Even birds that don't like sap hang around the tree to snap up any insects that are attracted by it. Flying squirrels and bats also enjoy the occasional drink at a sap well.

Sapsuckers are unwitting heroes to many creatures, but in the eyes of the timber industry, not so much. Timber people hate sapsuckers because they feel the birds damage the trees. (Unlike them, who only cut the entire tree down.) They even have a name for lumber that has sapsucker damage. It's called "bird peck." Really, it is. That's a rather cute name coming from guys who carry chain saws all day long.

Give my best to your Lego Log, Helen. But I'm telling you right now, start thinking about selling mobiles made from old ski poles. They would be new, artsy and hip. Also, because the poles are made of aluminum, your customers wouldn't have to worry about their mobiles getting a case of bird peck. That feature alone should help you sell millions.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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