Male Sapsucker (Photos by Don Reimer)
Male Sapsucker (Photos by Don Reimer)
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Amid stands of mature hardwoods in my Warren neighborhood, four species of woodpeckers inhabit a certain rock maple tree in the front yard. That 40-year-old maple has some compelling physical traits, such as partially decayed limbs and sectors of trunk rot that generally appeal to woodpeckers. My own judiciously placed suet offerings serve to augment the woodpeckers’ natural cuisine.

Delivering 8,000 to 12,000 pecks per day, woodpeckers are supremely equipped for a lifestyle of percussive repetitive motion. Sinewy attachments encircle the base of the bill and brain, acting as a protective helmet to absorb reverberating shockwaves. Woodpecker feet differ from most songbirds (three forward-facing toes and one back-facing). Their “zygodactyl” arrangement of two toes positioned forward and two facing backward is strategically efficient for grasping onto trees. A set of stiff tail feathers helps to brace and stabilize the bird as it maneuvers and hammers into bark. A thick band of bristly bill feathers shields the nostrils from inhaling sawdust. And for added visual protection, woodpeckers use their third eyelid (a.k.a. nictitating membrane) to keep flying wood particles from their eyes.

Woodpecker tongues are uniquely structured by species, varying in length according to their preferred diets. The tongues of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, for example, extend up to three times the length of the bill! Perfect for extracting insects from deep holes and crevices. By contrast, sapsuckers have a shorter tongue with a customized brushlike tip for slurping up tree sap.

Despite the harsh winter conditions, two Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers forage my maple on most days. Since the majority of sapsuckers retreat from New England during winter, these are slightly unusual sightings for the time of year. Over time though, I’ve come to anticipate such January visits at this particular tree. You may have noticed the handy work of sapsuckers on tree trunks — those tiny holes in outer bark layers, usually created in neatly spaced horizontal rows that sometimes ring the entire trunk. Older trees in fruit orchards are common sapsucker targets. These drillings don’t typically kill the trees, but can potentially affect the value of other trees that eventually become lumber.

At my yard maple, the arrival of sapsuckers generally signals a party! For the other birds, that is. And who wouldn’t welcome a party guest who provides food and drink for all? An adult male sapsucker works the south-facing surfaces of my tree, quietly chiseling bits of outer bark. Within a few minutes, a half dozen freshly drilled wells begin to weep and trickle — slowly at first. Once the wells are completed, the bird returns at intervals to consume the oozing sap, bits of cambium bark and any insects that might accumulate in the sap.

Eventually the pulsing streams of dripping sap reach a critical mass that draws in other expectant partygoers. A male Red-bellied Woodpecker buries his bill in a row of wells for an extensive feeding session. Soon his probing bill appears all shiny and wet with sap. Next a Hairy Woodpecker takes his turn as he nuzzles the sap. Then a sequence of Downy Woodpeckers, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches all visit the seeping fountains. There is a loose pecking order to the sap access, somewhat related to relative size. The male sapsucker shifts casually between high and low well sites, but shows no real aggression toward the fellow birds.

As the daily sap parties continue, I ponder whether this male sapsucker is the same individual that drums so loudly on the metal street sign beyond my house each May and nests somewhere in the local hardwoods.