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Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Mon, May 1st, 2000
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We meet at the peanut butter log near my front door. We look into each other's eyes, mine as big as his head, his as big as the head of a pin.

It's April 1, 1999 and the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker has returned, announcing his arrival by drumming on the metal roof of our woodshed. I hear his plaintive mew and watch him fly to last year's nest hole in a nearby poplar tree. His short legs, strong claws and stiff tail hold him in place. He calls again and glomps on to another poplar where he begins to drill small holes. The holes will become wells for sap, which he will lick with his long hairy tongue. An insect attracted to the sap is a goner because this bird loves sap-soaked insects, which also give him a way to carry sap to his young.

The Gardner illustration accompanying this column shows a sapsucker in a typical pose, working his holes. The holes and markings on the poplar bark repeat some of the markings on the bird and camouflage him. I think of other repetitions in nature: leaves sailing through the air like little birds, trees branching above and below ground, the trout lily in spring mimicking the brook trout, the brook reflecting and repeating the woodpecker bobbing around a trunk. Sometimes I think there is only one thing and we are all part of it, not separate entities.

When the female sapsucker arrives, the drumming duets begin. She looks like her partner, but lacks his red throat. Sapsuckers mate for life, which probably has more to do with site fidelity than love. Their favorite nesting trees are live birch, aspen or poplar affected by tinder fungus. Decaying wood inside the tree provides a soft nesting place while the hard outer wood protects the young from predators. The female incubates and broods during the day, the male at night.

Last summer, from April 25 to May 10, I observed the pair excavating their gourd-shaped nest hole. I first saw them carry-ing food to the nest on May 24. Whether they were feeding nestlings or each other, I'm not sure, but that's when my per-sonal relationship with the male began.

For several years, I have been spreading peanut butter mixed with cornmeal on a log hanging from our feeder pole. Other birds gather around when I fill the log, but are too timid to feed until I step away. Not the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The minute I arrive, he zooms in and begins to eat. He looks smaller and more vulnerable close up than far away. I can see his individual feathers, where red on his throat merges with his black bib, the yellowish wash on his belly. His whole body could fit in my hand, but his personality and passion rival mine.

My friend flies back and forth from the feeder to the nest all day long. The female never visits the feeder, although I see her carrying food. By June 23, I can hear the nestlings constantly and loudly begging. On July 3, they poke their heads out of the hole. Two days later, they are gone.

According to my calculations, they were in the nest forty days, much longer than the usual twenty-nine. Alexander Skutch, in Parent Birds and Their Young, writes that the mother leaves the family four or five days after fledging has occurred. The father remains with his young for about two weeks.

I don't see the birds again until July 17 when I hear a tapping on an adolescent elm and find two juvenile sapsuckers working their holes. The last time I see them before they fly south is October 2.

Now it is April 6, 2000 and I hear a loud irregular drumming on our electric pole. The sapsucker's irregular drumming pattern distinguishes him from all other local woodpeckers. He is six days late, so I am relieved he is here. Other spring birds have also returned, but the warblers and vireos won't come until the end of this month, just in time for the Root River Bird Festival and the opening at Cornucopia of Dana Gardner's exhibition "The Illustrated Bird; New Watercolors."

There goes the sapsucker again; he flies to last year's nest hole then glomps onto another tree where he begins to drill small holes. Soon his mate will arrive and cycle of reproduction will begin once more.

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